Son Of Saul is László Nemes’ violently uncompromising debut about the Sonderkommando – the gas chamber killers who worked to be allowed a few more months on the earth
There’s more to Son of Saul than meets the eye. László Nemes’ jaw-dropping debut unfolds in the living hell of Auschwitz in 1944 and it’s an unforgiving assault on the senses, replete with human suffering all over the screen and beyond. So much so, Hungarian prisoner Saul (Géza Röhrig) develops a defence mechanism: the edges of the narrow frame are blurred, as if his vision is obscured.
What looks simple is actually a technical masterstroke. Though the atrocities are left to the imagination, there’s a vivid awareness of what’s happening off-screen. The genocide can’t be filmed, and it remains unfilmed, but the brutality is not denied. The sound design alone comprises eight languages filtered through screams, violent orders and desperate prayers, if any can be heard above the gunshots and flames.
There’s no Hollywood sugar-coating here. From the get-go, we see Saul usher Jews into a gas chamber; he waits outside, then clears corpses from the floor. He’s part of the Sonderkommando, a group tasked with assisting the concentration camp’s large-scale exterminations in exchange for a few more months alive. In a well-oiled killing machine, he’s forced to be another cog, and you’re with him all the way. The moral complexity doesn’t end there. When he seeks a proper burial for a boy that may or may not be his son, he does so knowing the quest endangers the lives of those around him.
In the past year, Son of Saul has seemingly won everything from the Grand Prix at Cannes to best foreign language film at the Oscars. That on its own is remarkable, and then you remember Nemes is a first-time filmmaker. To find out more, we spoke to Nemes when he was in London earlier this month.
I watched A Little Patience, your short film that played Venice in 2007, and it’s somewhat of a precursor to Son of Saul. How long have you wanted to make a film set during the Holocaust?
László Nemes: For years and years I wanted to make a film set in a concentration camp. I really wanted to go back to the here and now of the extermination, and to forget all the layers of imagery and interpretation that were added to the Holocaust by the films of the 50s, 60s, 70s and so on.
What interested you about the Sonderkommando?
László Nemes: Not many films have been made about them, and people aren’t really aware they existed. When I read the writing of these people, it was obvious they were in the heart of darkness in a way no one else was. The fact that we ignore them is, in a way, ignoring the very core of the Holocaust and the extermination.
How did you approach the extended shots? It’s really powerful how few cuts there are, as if there’s no escape from what you’re seeing.
László Nemes: We really wanted to have both the chaos and the organisation of the camp. Our visual strategy allows both. We prepared the shots extensively – it was choreographed to the smallest movement of the vehicles, the extras, you name it. But on the other hand, Géza is not a professional actor, and a lot of movement was unforeseen and unexpected. This introduced the chaos we needed. In Holocaust films, you can perceive the organisation, but you seldom see the chaos.
Because of the longer shots, everyone believed they were in a real place. Everyone was much more under the influence of the atmosphere. The longer shots allowed people to immerse themselves in the situation. It helped the directing because when people were scared, they were really scared.
Wow, I didn’t know Géza wasn’t a professional actor. How did you find him?
László Nemes: The casting took 18 months. It was an extensive casting in Europe and beyond. I really wanted to preserve this chaos of language with people from different countries. For Saul, I needed someone along the Bressonian principle who wouldn’t be recognised. Someone who’s ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Géza was a friend from New York. I contacted him, but I wasn’t sure for what role. The moment we auditioned him, it became obvious he was the right person. And in an organic way, he became the main character.
“Nothing is off limits. You just have to have the sense of responsibility. In this case, I knew I was speaking of the dead and the dignity of the dead” – László Nemes
With the close-ups on the back of Saul’s head and the Academy aspect ratio and the blurred edges, you don’t visualise the atrocities. Were there other lines you wouldn’t cross?
László Nemes: Actually, we weren’t thinking in that way. We just wanted to be with the main character. He’s used to the horror around him, so he’s not looking at it, and we’re not looking either. He only looks at the object of his quest – everything associated with the boy. In a way, the whole film is a rhythm found through the main character’s gaze.
Can you tell me about the sound design? It fills in a lot of the information that, as you mentioned, isn’t present in the visuals.
László Nemes: The sound design took five months to make. It was a very difficult process involving a lot of languages that I had to supervise. We needed human voices for the shouts and orders and whispers. I wanted this babel of languages to exist in the film. It’s an organic world you don’t access as a whole; it reflects an individual’s experience of the camp. You only hear and see some facts. The entire image can only be considered in your mind – and that was really our main purpose.
There’s a chase, there’s action, there’s a conspiracy. Were there ever any fears it might be too entertaining?
László Nemes: Not in a conscious way. We wanted to keep it as low-key as possible. But it had to be a very frantic movie. So the frenzy of it sometimes gives the impression that it’s… you know, entertaining. But the repetitive pattern of the work of the Sonderkommando, and the length of the day, the space, the time – these are things that appear in the film in a very acute manner.
Some people believe no art should ever attempt to recreate the Holocaust. Do you believe you’ve proven there’s a way to do it, or will some people never change their mind?
László Nemes: Nothing is off limits. You just have to have the sense of responsibility. In this case, I knew I was speaking of the dead and the dignity of the dead. When you have the sense of responsibility, I think you can approach anything. You have to exercise self-restraint, and from the restraint will come something that can be used in cinema.
A Little Patience and Son of Saul both begin with a blurred shot of trees. How important was it that nature’s always hovering in the background? Especially those scenes where Saul is in the water.
László Nemes: I think it’s intuitive. But I’m always attracted to films that have nature as a very important character. In the history of the Holocaust, nature is there – you can’t ignore it. The trees and the wind and the sky and the water and the ashes and the fire that’s burning people. It’s elementary and visceral.
Not that it’s easy, but Son of Saul takes a simple approach to the subject matter that’s never been done before. Why is that? Has no one been brave enough?
László Nemes: Cinema nowadays is more and more confined to conventional depictions of events. We’re forgetting about point of view, and we’re forgetting about new ways of approaching films. Also because of television, there’s less willingness to take risks on the part of the financiers and the creators themselves. I’m fighting for the possibility of different approaches. I wish there were more people emerging from the darkness of being unknown or starting their first project and trying to do something bold.
How were you able to get funding then, especially as a first-time filmmaker?
László Nemes: Only the Hungarian film fund financed the film. We had refusals from across the board. People didn’t want to finance a film about the Holocaust, especially one that would follow a different pattern.
But now you’ve got the Oscar…
László Nemes: Now it’s suddenly easier. People talk to me now.
“I’m OK with digital existing. It’s just that digital is killing film. Film has an organic quality you can’t replace with zeros and ones” – László Nemes
What can you say about your next film, Sunset?
László Nemes: It’s a mystery film. It’s the story of a young woman at the outbreak of the first world war in Hungary. It’s very different.
(Shoah director) Claude Lanzmann called Son of Saul the anti-Schindler’s List. Do you agree with his description?
László Nemes: It’s not up to me to comment on that. Schindler’s List is a film anchored in the tradition of films that contributed to the memory of the Holocaust. This is a very different film. It draws attention to the individual plight within the concentration camp. It’s a different approach. But in a way, both films talk about the Holocaust without trying to spare the audience.
When I saw Son of Saul at London Film Festival, you did the intro and said, ‘This screening is being projected in digital, not 35mm, and is therefore just a shadow of the real thing.’ What’s so important about 35mm, especially for this film?
László Nemes: I’m OK with digital existing. It’s just that digital is killing film. Film has an organic quality you can’t replace with zeros and ones. We needed the texture, the depth, the quality of the out-of-focus range to be rich and vibrant in its mystery. When you see the digital version of the film, the out-of-focus range is flatter and less rich.
When you shoot on film, you have the concentration on the part of the cast and crew. That’s incredible. You have a rehearsal and you have a shoot. You separate those two steps. Whereas if you shoot on digital, you have almost no rehearsal. You just shoot everything. It loses the craftsmanship and value of the image when you switch to digital.
Then why is digital so popular? Is it money or just laziness?
László Nemes: There’s laziness involved, but there’s also an incredible propaganda to standardise everything to digital. At the end, the viewer loses. I’m still fighting for the possibility of shooting on film. Son of Saul will have a number of 35mm prints, and I hope people will prefer watching it on film.