A love story forged at the least romantic place in the world, a slaughterhouse, “On Body and Soul” is a testament to the grit of its writer-director, first-time Oscar nominee Ildikó Enyedi.
Born in Budapest, the 62-year-old emerged on the international film scene almost 30 years ago, winning the Cannes’ Camera d’Or for her feature debut, “My Twentieth Century” (among the top 10 films of 1989, according to The New York Times). Over the next decade, she made four more films; 1999’s “Simon the Magician” claimed the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Then she went 18 years without a release.
Courtesy of Netflix
“Oh my God, I was constantly, constantly working on projects, and they nearly happened,” she told IndieWire at the Hollywood offices of Netflix, which began streaming “On Body and Soul” last week. Five of her original films were scratched, including a story set in 1930s New York, when scientists at kitchen tables scribbled calculations for what would ultimately become the Manhattan Project. Although that endeavor paired Enyedi with “wonderful partners,” the successive disappointments caused her to lose hope.
“When you are desperate, you start to make bad decisions, even if your instincts are good,” she said. “You just team up with the wrong guys. And that can steal years from your life.”
Admittedly shy and reclusive, Enyedi started her career mounting performances and exhibitions as part of interdisciplinary art group Indigo. Her goal remains, she said, “to understand my life and our life and what the hell is happening.” Post-“My Twentieth Century,” she realized that filmmaking was the only medium she needed.
Courtesy of Netflix
“It’s so complex and the phases are so different,” she said. The solitude of writing and intimacy of editing in the dark bookend “a big explosion of human communication,” which to her becomes effortless when a common purpose is shared: “If you make a film with a bunch of people, it’s like going together to the North Pole. If you come back and if you meet 20 years later, you will look in the eyes of each other and [think], We were there together.“
After discarding various ideas, a “healing” experience came when HBO Europe commissioned Enyedi to direct 37 episodes of “Terápia,” Hungary’s take on the Israel-created series “In Treatment.” She also taught classes at her hometown’s University of Theatre and Film Arts, and eventually decided to revisit a 10-year-old script.
In “On Body and Soul,” slaughterhouse director Endre (Géza Morcsányi) monitors new arrival Maria (Alexandra Borbély), a quality inspector dispatched by the authorities. While both are standoffish, Maria is a tough judge, bestowing B grades on slabs of beef that would normally be rated exemplary, citing micro-sized inconsistencies. (The character has mild Asperger’s Syndrome, with total recall of every sentence ever spoken to her.)
After a theft is reported at the factory, a psychologist (Réka Tenki) invasively questions each worker. To her shock, Endre and Maria both tell her they recall dreaming that they were deer snuffling for food in a snowy forest clearing. They realize that they’re inhabiting the same dream, and establish a kinship and a slow-building romance as Maria prepares to have physical contact with another person for the first time. (Our dreams are what make all people “surreal and magic,” Enyedi said.)
Enyedi was an only child; Maria was inspired by effectively getting a childhood do-over while she raised each of her two kids (a third died due to a medical error soon after birth). Only after becoming a mother did she learn how to swim and ride a bike. Playing with a small child causes you to “change perspective,” she said. “You are really so lost in space and lost in time like they are.” The point of “On Body and Soul” is thus “not just to watch a weird lady, but to really enter in her world.”
Courtesy of Netflix
The Hungarian Film Fund paid 100 percent of the costs of the film. “It was made really smoothly and with a lot of safety and peace,” she said. At December’s European Film Awards, “On Body and Soul” was up for four prizes, including Best European Film and Best European Director. Borbély — a theater actress who had only appeared in small on-camera parts — was the feature’s solo winner (Best European Actress); Morcsányi is an amateur who spent 20 years as the managing director of the prestigious Magvető Publishing house in Hungary. “He never, ever, worked in a film, and never, ever will again,” said Enyedi.
As she prepped her 38-day shoot, Enyedi showed the script to a fellow filmmaker who called the text “beautiful” but said the wintry deer scenes were “out of the question.” In another bit of luck, animal trainer Zoltan Horkai — a veteran of Netflix’s “Marco Polo,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” and Brett Ratner’s “Hercules” — accepted the job, even for less money than usual, excited by the challenge. They filmed the beautiful wild animals for six days. And all of the brutal slaughterhouse visuals are for real, filmed in an actual abattoir.
Courtesy of Netflix
“On Body and Soul” tasks its characters with “facing [their] issues, and being brave enough to leave [their] comfort zone for the chance to live a real life,” Enyedi said. “And real life means not only pleasant things,” which is why her film includes matter-of-fact decapitated cows, bone-cutting saws, and carcasses hanging from hooks.
Enyedi said she only became an animal lover after getting married: her husband’s family has raised cattle for 400 years in a hillside village in Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany. “I was amazed how rich of a life [the herds] have there,” she explained. “That they are very curious, that they have a social life.”
For the last 30,000 years, the director said, “we raise [animals], we live together with them; for a long time, people in the winter slept with them in the same house; we kill them and eat them,” with the killing part only moving behind closed doors after World War II. “There is one thing even more horrible than killing them: it’s how we treat them beforehand” in the modernized world, she said. Still, Enyedi does eat meat on rare occasions. “I don’t want to tell anybody [how to do] anything, just to make valid decisions, to know how [meat] arrives.”
It’s disconcerting to Enyedi that our culture is “sheltering us” from so much (like the devastating conditions in Southeast Asian plants where iPhones are assembled). Since life decisions are often “not based on true information,” she said, “it makes it a very eerie thing to live today, very neurotic.” Which is why the dream sequences in her film, to her, are the ones most grounded in “the beauty and power of real things.”
“On Body and Soul” premiered exactly a year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, yielding 52 distribution offers and the prestigious Golden Bear Award. Screenings followed at the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest. Enyedi believes the film rights have sold to 92 nations, half of which commenced with theatrical runs. “I’m very happy that in many countries, there is a chance to see it in the cinema, because I believe in the cinema experience,” she said.
At the same time, when traveling the globe recently — accepting honors from the Lecce Festival of European Cinema, the Sydney Film Festival, and the Mumbai Film Festival — Enyedi “got a lot of feedback from people who would be unable to go to the cinema, or they don’t have cinemas nearby,” so she “believe[s] in both” the streaming and theatrical experiences. Netflix acquired North American distribution rights in November 2017 (it usually insists on worldwide rights availability), soon before debuting another foreign festival circuit favorite, Georgia’s “My Happy Family.” At the Oscars next month, Netflix will vie for eight trophies in seven categories (rival Amazon is up for a single award, Best Original Screenplay for “The Big Sick”).
The most shocking moment in the film is not something seen in the slaughterhouse — it’s when Maria hurts herself. The shot caused such a powerful audience reaction that “in nearly every country… people fainted during the screenings, and the screening had to be stopped,” Enyedi said. “I was very much surprised, but in fact I was very much touched…if at that point of the film somebody faints, it means that this person is totally with us, totally with the film, totally immersed, and not just watching this young woman.”
One of the biggest similarities between humans and animals, in Enyedi’s mind, is that both can falsely believe they are enjoying full lives. Sometimes, “even if you think you are very efficient, you are doing well at your job, and you are performing well, it’s not real,” she said. “I just wanted to face all this, inside a simple love story, and not to cover my eyes.”