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Academy Awards: Fifty-One Years Of Hungarian Submissions Preceed 2016 Nominee “Son Of Saul”

By Ferenc Sullivan // 2016.02.24.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which will see Oscar Prizes presented at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on 28 February, will be especially exciting for Hungary and Hungarians around the world keeping their fingers crossed for last year’s towering Hungarian movie success, Son of Saul. Here, we offer an overview of the country’s showing at the event over the past fifty-one years in retrospect:

Hungary has submitted films for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, better known as the Foreign Oscar every year since 1965. Only France has a longer unbroken streak entering the competition.

The award is handed out annually by the United States Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to a feature-length motion picture produced outside the United States that contains primarily non-English dialogue. Hungary’ annual submission is selected by a committee of highly regarded film professionals.

So far, nine Hungarian films have been nominated – being selected among the nine movies  for the Oscar Prize, but only István Szabó’s 1981 film Mephisto, adapted from German author Klaus Mann’s novel bearing the identical name, managed to win the award. Hungarian films were nominated six times in eleven years, between 1978 and 1988. The next nomination came in 2015, with director László Nemes’s Cannes and Golden Globe-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul.

Most of the nine films were primarily in the Hungarian language, although three of István Szabó’s films – Colonel Redl, Hanussen and Mephisto -, all of which featured Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, were largely in German.

The first film to receive the nomination was the American-Hungarian co-production The Boys of Paul Street, directed by Zoltán Fábri and based on the famous 1906 youth novel The Paul Street Boys, by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár, in 1968.

Next came Károly Makk’s Cats’ Play, a drama film based on the novel by renowned Hungarian writer István Örkény, in 1974. Four years later, it was followed by Hungarians, a drama film also directed by Zoltán Fábri. In 1980, István Szabó’s WWII drama Confidence, involving a couple escaping from the Nazis, won the nomination.

It was no sooner than 1981 that a nominated Hungarian film actually won the Academy Award. That year, the film adaptation of German novelist Klaus Mann’s book Mephisto, directed by István Szabó and starring Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen, won the Oscar for the best foreign film. The film was a co-production between companies in Hungary, Austria and West Germany. To date, it remains the only Hungarian film to have won the Foreign Language Oscar. At the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, the 144-minute movie won the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Prize.

Before the transition to democracy, Hungary had three more nominations – Job’s Revolt, directed by Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay, in 1983; István Szabó’s Colonel Redl in 1985; and finally, also directed by Mr. Szabó, Hanussen in 1988.

After a long period in which no Hungarian films managed to score the nomination, The Notebook, a drama film directed by János Szász, followed in 2013. Having been selected as the Hungarian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award that year, it made the January shortlist but failed to win the nomination – thus the prize itself.

In 2016, Hungary’s hopes lie in director László Nemes’s first feature film, the highly-acclaimed 2015 Holocaust drama Son of Saul. It is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and follows a day-and-a-half in the life of Saul Ausländer (played by New York-based Hungarian Jewish actor Géza Röhrig), Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando.

The movie premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. Prior to being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, it became the first-ever Hungarian film to win the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Language Film.