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How Budapest-born László Nemes turned harrowing history into the Oscar-winning Son of Saul

László Nemes has proved risk can pay off. Since winning the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, the Budapest-born director’s ambitious first feature Son of Saul has scooped a host of awards including the Golden Globes and, most recently, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Nemes stuck with his vision despite problems securing funding from potential co-producers who deemed it too risky, and pulled off the feat of inventing a new cinematic language for portraying the Holocaust, a historical cataclysm often considered beyond depiction.  We met with Nemes, co-writer Clara Royer and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély on a hot Cannes afternoon last year. 

“I’ve been completely frustrated by other films on the Holocaust. They try to show too much, and tell too much,” Nemes says. “Something had to be done to bring the viewer’s experience back to the level of one human being.” Son of Saul does just that, immersing us in the experience of Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando worker in the crematoriums at Nazi death camp Auschwitz. In panicked numbness he goes about his labour, navigating a sensory tumult of horrors as a cog in the industrialised killing machine. There’s a lack of overt context as we first see him steering new arrivals into what they’re told are showers, but we soon grasp the act’s abject meaning. Scrubbing down walls and floors, carrying bodies to the incinerators, and shovelling ashes: in each task Saul goes through the motions while blocking himself mentally from their enormity. It’s 1944 toward the end of the war, and there’s a frantic desperation to the pace that compounds the sickening sense-impression fever.

Nemes’ drive to make the film came from his own personal relationship to the Holocaust: “I’ve been infused with the stories,” he says. “Not even stories, but the constant frustration that something terrible happened in the family and we don’t understand how. I don’t have a family really because they were wiped out. It was important for us to make a film for this generation to understand, rather than having all these years of projected explanations and sentimentality.” While he developed his own singular approach, Nemes’ work as an assistant director to Béla Tarr, Hungary’s cinematic master of formal rigour and philosophical weight, primed him well for such an undertaking. “He was my film school,” says Nemes, adding: “It’s a long Hungarian tradition. Tarr comes from Miklós Jancsó. We’re from that school of long takes.”

Powerfully nailing traumatised disconnect as Saul is first-time actor Geza Rohrig, who has penned two poetry collections on the Shoah. Shot in shallow focus and tracked through long takes, he fills almost every frame, his surroundings a chaos of blur and din. We’re so close in, we never see his whole body. “I wonder whether we should have given him less expensive shoes to save budget, because they were not needed,” jokes Nemes. “The way we stick to him is a way to accompany him through the journey. We’re looking at what he is interested in — he’s not paying attention to the horror because there was a sort of psychological distance he had to create.” While our point of view is restricted, sounds — from screams to gunshots and desperate whispers — never let up on their hellish implications. “The sound constantly reminds you as a viewer that there’s more.” The sonorities of speech as historical memory were also important. Of the eight languages heard in the film, Yiddish is dominant — a language that almost disappeared in the Holocaust along with its speakers.

The trio are quick to acknowledge that attempts to render the Holocaust on screen are already numerous. As time passes and survivor numbers dwindle, the sense of urgency in passing historical memory on to subsequent generations only seems to be becoming stronger. Nemes professes respect for the astounding achievement of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah, which stands as the definitive documentary bearing witness to the Holocaust, and says the team revisited its survivor testimonies along with consulting personal accounts in their research. But he is reluctant to align the film with Hollywood dramatisations such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which tend to be couched as sentimental narratives of good and evil and position a hero whose humanistic compass we can root for. “We really wanted to exclude all the representation codes that were built up after the war, the scene logic to the way characters are addressed or behave, because they’re related to survival strategies,” says Nemes. “This event was not about survival, it was about death and killing, in what was a factory.” Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély adds: “Death camps are such a fertile environment for drama, they’re 100% tragedy, and it so easily turns into cliches.”

They cite instead Elem Klimov’s Soviet-era masterpiece Come and See, which portrays the vivid horrors of the Nazi occupation of Belarus as a hallucinatory nightmarescape, as a key influence: “It’s very baroque compared to ours, but its organicity inspired us a lot,” says Nemes. Son of Saul shares its brutal sense of psychic decimation. Saul is a walking dead man, and the film captures a sense of the camp as a void in which signals along the normal emotional and moral plane can no longer function. But the filmmakers dug deep for a spiritual transformation. Over the two days that we follow Saul, he is on a quest to find a rabbi to give a proper burial to a body he believes to be that of his son. In such a senseless place, whether or not the body is his son is unimportant — it’s his idea that carries transformative power.

“It was important for us to make a film for this generation to understand, rather than having all these years of projected explanations and sentimentality”

“What was interesting for me was how the dead in a sense come back to life — an inner life,” says Nemes. When asked about the film’s relation to Judaism, he pauses. “It’s a very, very difficult question — it is related but I’m scared I would get lost explaining. With me it’s subconscious. The main character is not a religious person, and actually makes mistakes about what it means to bury in the Jewish way. You don’t need a rabbi, you need ten people saying the Kaddish, so he never gets that right.” He humbly defers to Royer as more articulate in regard to these layers, and she adds: “It’s a paradox: you can’t bury in Auschwitz when you burn, and it’s supposed to be one of the very first acts that made us humans.” Erdély chimes in: “We talked a lot about what is going on with Saul. It’s beyond religion, heroism or survival. He sees this boy and that triggers him in a way that he becomes — I’m going to use the word “saint” but it’s not the right word. But he becomes holy in a sense. It’s beyond categories.”

It’s evident the team’s collaboration mode was one of much discussion and reflection. Reluctant though he is to presume a voice of authority on spiritual matters, Nemes hits on the sense of existential exploration that lends the film its freshness and genuine intent, when he suggests: “The interesting thing in Judaism if I understood it correctly, because I wasn’t brought up in a religious fashion, is the constant obligation to ask questions. You cannot just take a rule as it is and take it as a dogma, there is a continuous obligation to wonder if it’s right or wrong. Saul is not religious but it’s not about a God it’s about something very human and universal — finding a voice within that would give you a way to remain a human being in this darkness.”

Text: Carmen Gray

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