Helmers homeward bound

After years of working in U.S., directors give native countries another shot

PARIS — His new pic, “Rokonok,” may not have found a U.S. distributor yet, but Istvan Szabo is in no mood to complain.

After 14 years of making pictures in English, Szabo — the only Magyar director ever to win an Academy Award (for “Mephisto” in 1982) — has finally gotten around to making another pic in his native Hungarian.

The 68-year-old hyphenate likens his experience of making “Rokonok,” a typically Hungarian tale of government corruption based on a novel by Zsigmond Moricz, to “a honeymoon.”

And Szabo’s feelings are by no means isolated. In fact, they are typical of a growing number of established European auteurs, unimpressed with English-language screenplays, who are returning home to write or direct films about their native cultures.

Just as “Pixote” director Hector Babenco left Hollywood to work in Argentina, Holland’s Paul Verhoeven, France’s Jean-Jacques Annaud, Germany’s Wim Wenders, Hungarian-American Joe Eszterhas and Denmark’s Lars von Trier have all decided it’s high time for a return to the source.

Of those names, Verhoeven, Wenders and Eszterhas have spent a long time living and working in the U.S., either writing or directing films, most of which were financed by U.S. companies and told American stories. All three men, now in their 60s, have opted to turn their backs on the U.S., at least for the time being, to make pics in and about their homelands.

“I’m not leaving in disillusion,” says Wenders, who is busy planning a German-language film to be shot in his native Germany. “I just feel that with the last three films that I made in the U.S. — ‘Soul of a Man,’ ‘Land of Plenty’ and ‘Don’t Come Knocking’ — I have said everything I had to say, at least for a while, about American culture and living in America. It’s different working in your mother tongue; somehow it connects to your soul and your subconscious in a different way.”

“I have an affinity for American culture: I can let myself be inspired by it, criticize it, find it ironic, all of which I’ve done, but culturally I don’t think like that,” says Verhoeven, whose WWII thriller “Black Book” is the helmer’s first Dutch-language pic since 1983’s “The Fourth Man.” (A $20 million Dutch/German/ British co-production, “Black Book” is also the most expensive film ever undertaken in Holland). “I understand the characters better in my Dutch films, whereas I find it hard to understand American characters, above all with the political developments of recent years. One day I will go back to Holland, because I’m not enough of a fan of America to want to spend the rest of my days there.”

For some, such as Eszterhas, time is of the essence. After recovering from throat cancer, the author of such scabrous Hollywood fare as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” decided to pen his first Hungarian-language pic, “Children of Glory,” about a bloody water-polo match between Hungary and Russia at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

The personal nature of these pics is mirrored by those of Euro-based helmers such as Annaud, whose “Her Majestic Minor,” a mythical comedy set in ancient Greece, is his first French-language pic since 1979’s “Hothead,” and Lars von Trier, whose office farce “The Boss of It All” is his first Danish-language pic since 1998’s “The Idiots.”

“Some of my films are better suited to be made in Danish, because they have local themes and are on a smaller scale,” says von Trier. “My English-language films perhaps have a more epic quality than my Danish-language ones. Maybe that has something to do with the kind of English-language films I like to watch, like those of David Lean, for instance. Working on a smaller film like ‘The Boss of It All’ helps me advance as a director; I feel free to try out new things.”

By the same token, von Trier says he will make his next pic, a horror film currently titled “Anti-Christ,” in English because he believes genre films are better served by an English script.

For most of these filmmakers, the most attractive prospect about going home is the chance to work in their mother tongue. They can express themselves better both when writing a screenplay and when it comes to directing actors.

“Language plays a key part” in the screenwriting process, Verhoeven explains. “When I write dialogue in my own tongue I have more confidence. I’m instantly aware if it sounds right, whereas in the States I have to ask my co-producer, Stacy Lumbrezer, to verify the text because my English is quite hesitant.”

“I can express myself better,” Szabo agrees. “Sometimes when I’m talking to my actors, I’m talking like a therapist. In English I cannot say exactly what I would like to say, I can say only what I can — there is an enormous difference.”

There are, of course, downsides to working in your own country in your own language. Distribution can be a sticking point for non-English-language films, as Szabo has found out, particularly in the U.S. Also, American crews have more hands-on experience to mounting bigger-budget projects.

“We are not used to working on such a big scale here, and this can sometimes create problems,” Verhoeven says of making “Black Book” in Holland.

But the desire to keep breaking new creative ground appears to be more than enough enticement to keep the home fires burning. Or it could simply be, as Federico Fellini once said, that “a different language is a different vision of life.”

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