Telling The Bela Guttmann Story
In 2014 I moved from Los Angeles to Lisbon to write and direct my first feature film. I wanted to make a sport drama biopic about Bela Guttmann, a holocaust survivor, 20th century Jack-of-all-trades and gentleman extraordinaire who spent a big chapter of his life in Portugal.
Barely did I know as I boarded my plane to Lisbon that my odyssey to put this project together would be as sad and eventful as Bela Guttmann’s life itself.
When I arrived in Lisbon I interviewed with several producers. One of Portugal’s most reputable production companies told me they were interested in the Bela Guttmann idea.
“In what language should I write the screenplay?” I asked. The head producer answered, “I have no idea.”
Bela Guttmann was a man caught between cultures. Born in Budapest in 1899, son of two Hungarian dancers, Bela soon realized there was more money to be made in football than in dancing. He began playing in the 1910’s becoming Hungarian champion with MTK Hungaria at the age of 22. The rampant anti-Semitism of the period forced Guttmann to move to Vienna and become a player and founding member of the first all Jewish sports club in the world–Hakoah Wien.
When I started writing the screenplay there were no books available about Guttmann in Portugal. I purchased his biography in the only country where it was available—Brazil—and I began a writing relationship with its author, Detlev Claussen. I still asked my producer if a known Portuguese screenwriter friend of mine could join the project and make it stronger. She said no.
After months of research and writing the first draft was finished. I sent it to be reviewed by some script doctors including Anita Doron. I was proud of the fourth draft, so I decided to send it abroad to find co-producers. The Hungarian production company, Blue Danube, emboldened by the Oscar for Son of Saul showed interest, and Prague special effects powerhouse, PFX, showed interest in the post-production of the film. To make maters even more promising a representative of Eurimages told me at Berlinale that a project involving Portugal and eastern European countries had high probabilities of getting the full 17 percent production funding from that institution.
Bela Guttmann went on a tour of America with Hakoah Wien, and the money he made playing football (soccer) in America was so much that Bela stayed and began playing football for multiple American teams. He retired at the age of 30 and became a nightlife impresario in New York City. His speakeasy was so successful Bela rubbed shoulders with Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, and the big movie stars of the roaring 20’s. In ten years Bela went from being a poor Hungarian dancer to an American tycoon.
Eventually my Portuguese producer hired my copywriting services. Copywriting was my day job, but I knew that the production of the “Mata Hari” mini series had left her bankrupted. Torn between wanting to be nice and a price I knew she could not afford, I decided to write the marketing package she required for a fraction of my usual price. The graphic designer also agreed to do it for a fraction of the price because we were working in the same company, and my boss thought the Guttmann project could be good for everyone.
We produced a successful marketing plan for the movie “Sao Jorge” and thanks to our work the project received funding from Portugal’s main telecommunications company. But as the weeks went by, my producer did not transfer the fee we had agreed on and stopped answering my phone calls. Frustrated by what I thought was a breach of agreement I reached out to Paulo Branco, Godard’s producer, who was then working on a Terry Gilliam Don Quijote project. I told him over the phone the basic outline of the story and asked if he wanted to hear a full pitch in person so he could take over as producer. He was very rude, “If you were working in LA what the hell are you doing here?” In the hours between my phone call and the meeting I had set up with Branco, my producer paid me what she owed, and I called off the meeting. I had no idea of the size of this mistake.
With the Wall Street crash of 1929, Bela Guttmann lost half a million dollars, five million by today’s standards. With his friends, money, and speakeasy gone, Bela got back to Europe where he became one of the first full time football coaches in history. Football was not a professional sport yet, and many of the blue prints of the modern game and the jobs associated with it were laid out by Bela and the “Hungarian School” during the 30’s. When the Second World War broke, Bela found himself in a Swiss concentration camp. He escaped mysteriously leaving behind his brother and only friend to die of starvation. That decision would haunt Bela for the rest of his life.
One year after I began working in the project, a Portuguese publisher surprisingly decided to publish Detlev Claussen’s Guttmann biography in Portugal and of all the people they could invite to present the biography the publisher chose precisely my friend, the screenwriter I wanted to have joined me in the writing of the screenplay. There was a big revelation in that re-edition. The Portuguese publisher found where Guttmann hid after he escaped the concentration camp–a barbershop basement in Budapest. Guttmann met his wife there, and historical records will only find him again in 1947 coaching a Romanian club in exchange for vegetables to eat. It’s amazing how a man who had the world at his feet in New York was being paid with food.
After coaching several teams including Italian giants AC Milan, Guttmann got to Benfica where he discovered a young Mozambican player called Eusebio. In one of the most beautiful Cinderella stories in football history, they won two European champions cup finals being the second one against the mighty Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano.
My producer presented my project to the National Film Fund just to see financing denied–Paulo Branco had presented a project about Guttmann and Eusebio.
That’s right, after fooling Terry Gilliam into believing he could finance his movie, Paulo Branco copied the idea I had pitched him over the phone and presented it to the Portuguese National Film Fund. My Hungarian and Czech co-producers bailed out once they realized Portugal, the country of origin, was not putting any money in.
Bela Guttmann was fired from Benfica by a shortsighted president. On the way out he cursed the club, “You will never win a European cup without me”. And it was so. Since 1963 Benfica has been to eight European finals and lost them all. Eusebio still tried to erase the curse by praying at Guttmann’s grave in Vienna, but it didn’t work.
Guttmann and I both gave our best to the projects we believed in. I learned with Bela Guttmann three things—how difficult it is to work in Portugal, never let go of your dreams even if they change with life, there are ups and downs but it ain’t over until it’s over.
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