Bringing ‘never again’ to the silver screen

Film producer Robert Lantos says rising antisemitism motivates him to bring Holocaust tales — like “The Song of Names” starring Clive Owen — to wide audiences

“The Song of Names,” due in theaters December 25, is a poignant, haunting and memorable film. It is also the first feature movie ever allowed to film on the grounds of Treblinka.

The film, starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen, darts back and forth between 1938, 1951 and 1985, following the lives of two young boys brought together just before the onset of the Holocaust. Dovidl Rapoport, a Jewish violin prodigy from Warsaw, is taken in as a lodger in London by the family of young Martin Simmonds. 

The two young boys quickly become fast friends as they survive the London blitz together, though Dovidl never learns the fate of his parents and sisters left behind in Poland. On the day he is slated to make his musical debut at a London concert hall, Dovidl disappears without a trace. Decades later, Martin is still searching for him, hunting down clues to find the man he loved as a brother.  

The film was directed by Francois Girard, set to a haunting and pivotal original score from Oscar-winner Howard Shore and produced by Robert Lantos, the Hungarian-born son of Holocaust survivors who has called Canada home for more than 50 years. 

Lantos spoke with Jewish Insider recently about his work on the film, the troubling rise in global antisemitism and the lessons movies can teach about hatred and prejudice. 

“This is a story that — in the climate in which we live today — absolutely has to be told,” Lantos said. “It’s a way to remember, it’s a way to honor the two key words in my entire vocabulary, which are ‘never again.’”

The screenplay for “The Song of Names” was written by Jeffrey Caine and adapted from a novel by Norman Lebrecht of the same name. When Lantos first read the book, he knew immediately that he wanted to bring it to the silver screen. The storyline, he said, is a way of telling a Holocaust tale “in an original manner and an emotionally compelling manner.” The musical-themed plot, he noted, is a conduit for “bringing the horrors of the Holocaust back to a contemporary audience without forcing people to come face to face with living skeletons and images of horror.”

Martin (Tim Roth) in a scene set at Treblinka.

The cast and crew spent just one day filming at the site of the Treblinka extermination camp, where close to a million people were murdered in its just over one year of operation. Today, nothing remains of the original camp, and the site is marked with a haunting memorial to the dead. 

“We asked for a permit and the authorities read the script and surprisingly they said yes,” Lantos recalled. That single day of work was the most difficult and disturbing day on set, he said.

“It was like being in a state of altered reality,” he told JI. “We only shot there for one day. And frankly, I can’t imagine spending more than one day there. The weight of the place is unbearable.”

Caine’s original screenplay contained dialogue for the scenes set in Treblinka. But once the filmmakers arrived on location, they changed the plan entirely. 

“Once we were there, we all felt that the dialogue had to go, because there’s nothing to say there,” Lantos said. “There’s nothing that can be said that wouldn’t be trivial in the context of what we were seeing with our eyes.”

While the original novel told a story of two young Jewish boys living through World War II, the film chose to make Martin and his family not Jewish. 

“The character of Martin provides an access point” to a wider audience, Lantos said. “I thought it’d be important to bring to it the point of view of someone who wasn’t steeped from birth in Jewish rituals and tradition.”

Dovidl (Jonah Hauer-King) enters a synagogue in London in the 1950s.

Dovidl’s connection to religion is a key plot point throughout the film. In one emotional scene, he reflects on the ideas of Judaism as a faith and as an ethnicity — a debate that still resonates strongly today. 

“Ethnicity isn’t soluble in water, Motl,” Dovidl tells Martin, using his affectionate nickname. “It’s a skin you’re born in and wear until the day you die. Now religion — that’s a coat. When it gets too hot — you can take it off.”

Lantos said they consulted with rabbis from Reform to Orthodox to “try and get every detail that had to do with religion and the period this film was set in” as authentic as possible.

Work on “The Song of Names” began several years ago, but Lantos has felt its importance and significance only grow as a rash of antisemitic incidents creeps across North America. 

The scene that was filmed in Treblinka, Lantos said, “is the reason that I felt that the film had to be made. Because in the world in which we now live in, where Jew hatred has found brand new ammunition, and it is firing on all cylinders, and it’s sweeping across Europe and on our campuses in North America, anything that we can do, to not forget… the consequences of that hate and human suffering — anything that I can do to remember, has to be done,” he continued. “If we don’t remember the past, we’re guaranteed to repeat them, to repeat all of its tragedies.”

Dovidl (Clive Owen) performs a solo violin concert.

Lantos has enjoyed a long and storied career as a filmmaker in Canada. His works include the critically acclaimed 2004 film “Being Julia,” starring Annette Benning; 2007’s “Eastern Promises” with Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts; and 2010’s “Barney’s Version,” starring Paul Giamatti. 

But many of Lantos’s films, particularly his recent ones, have dealt with the experiences of Jews during the Holocaust. Those include 1999’s “Sunshine,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz; 2003’s “The Statement” with Michael Caine; and 2015’s “Remember,” featuring Christopher Plummer. 

Lantos said his parents, both Hungarian Holocaust survivors, opted to hide their Jewish identity when he was a child, hoping that “the solution to sparing their son of the horrors and persecutions that they had lived through was to forget all about being Jewish.” 

The award-winning producer said that for decades he made films that had nothing to do with the Holocaust or with his Jewish identity — which finally changed with 1999’s “Sunshine,” which follows five generations of a Hungarian Jewish family and in many ways mirrors his own life story. 

“Up until that point, I didn’t feel that compelling need” to tell stories of Jewish persecution, Lantos said. And since then, as he watches a resurgence of antisemitism across the world, “I can’t think of anything that is more important to deal with than that in my life. I happen to be a filmmaker. That gives me a way of dealing with it that could possibly make a difference.”

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