In 1956, a stocky seven-year-old Hungarian boy was called into the principal’s office for violent behaviour.
His parents – Agnes and Lazlo Lantos – were in disbelief. What could have caused their even-tempered son Robert to strike a classmate square in the face?
The meeting in the principal’s office turned into a moment of revelation – both for Robert and his parents.
Robert Lantos recalls the incident, now 60 years later. As he prepares to speak about it, his sitting-posture moves from relaxed to defensive. His eyebrows furrow slightly and his deep brown eyes quickly turn from a mild twinkle to a searing glint.
Lantos was the first – and probably the last – big movie producer to bring Hollywood power and panache north of the border. He picked up the sagging Canadian film industry, put it on his shoulders and carried it right into the big leagues, one cigar at a time.
The incident with the classmate was a seminal moment in the life of Canada’s iconic movie mogul.
“I was quarreling with this boy in my class over a lunch bag. This boy called me a stinking Jew in Hungarian, and I was overcome with the immediate impulse to punch the boy right in the nose,” recalls Lantos.
What makes this childhood incident so memorable for Lantos is that up until that point, he had no knowledge whatsoever of his Jewish heritage.
His parents, Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, made the decision to raise their only child as a non-Jew. They had suffered enough and the last thing they wanted was for their beloved son to endure any of the torment and pain that befell them so tragically.
The next day following the altercation, both Lantos and the kid he’d popped in the shnozz were summoned to the principal’s office with their mothers. From that moment on, Lantos has kept his Jewish identity close to his heart.
The University of Haifa recently awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his firm and uncompromising support for the State of Israel and his fight against anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Just a month ago Lantos flew back to eastern Europe for yet another accolade. He was honoured by the Camerimage International Film Festival in November, along with two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange in the grand hall of the Opera Nova in the town of Bydgoszcz, Poland.
The Lantos film pantheon is pillared by several Holocaust movies but the one that holds a special place in his heart is Sunshine, starring Golden-Globe winning actor Ralph Fiennes.
Sunshine is a 1999 historical drama film written by Israel Horovitz and Istvan Szabo, directed and produced by Szabo. It follows three generations of a Jewish family (originally called Sonnenschein, a name that literally means “sunshine” in German, but later changed to Sors, meaning “fate” or “destiny” in Hungarian) during the changes in Hungary from the beginning of the 20th century to the period after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
While the film’s lack of commercial success was a mild disappointment for the Order of Canada recipient, the project was rich with personal satisfaction.
“Not everything has to be about money,” asserts Lantos. “One of the rewarding moments for me was just after the first screening of Sunshine, both of my kids turned to me and said: ‘Wow Dad, now I know where our grandparents came from and what they went through.’
“Sunshine is a project that has touched so many people all over the world. As I travel all through Europe, to this day, I get people coming up to me and explaining how this single film has touched their lives,” says Lantos.
When asked about the huge spike in anti-Semitic incidents around the globe, Lantos takes a big deep breath and looks into the distance. For the first time in the interview, he looks distraught. Noticeably troubled. He is somewhat exasperated at how to effectively engage this topic without losing his cool.
“A lot of people have grappled with this eternal question. We Jews have an incredible drive to succeed. Whatever obstacles that are in front of us, we seem to be able to rise above them, or go under them, or get around them,” says Lantos. “As a result of our resourcefulness and innate survival skills, we have a rather high incidence of success. And this success breeds envy,” he explains.
“When success becomes so disproportionate to the weakness of its numbers, this gives way to a toxic cocktail; and the result is part envy and part suspicion,” Lantos says.
At 67, Lantos has pushed the film art form substantially, using its broad strokes to paint the cultural identity of our nation on a global stage. He has inspired scores of independent filmmakers with his ability to fly in the face of the giant Hollywood marketing machines. And he has made more than a few shekels for all of his efforts.
So the obvious question is what motivates him to keep going?
“I still really like it,” Lantos says. “It’s kind of like an addiction. I am weaning myself off of it slowly. In the current state of the industry, it is becoming almost impossible to make the kind of films I like – but I got some stuff left,” Lantos says with the will of a prizefighter, who knows he has one more good fight left in him.
For all of the stories of excess, egomania and hedonism that entreats the icon’s legacy for due coverage; the Lantos of today – dare I say – seems to have mellowed. Funny how life does that.
Lantos comes from a country where 80 per cent of the Jewish population was decimated. He knows deep in his heart, he was chosen for greatness as much as he has achieved it. His gratitude is palpable. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his smile. It lights up the aura of Agnes and Lazlo’s only child.