Son of Saul director: “It had to be raw”

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 06 Apr 2016

Hungarian director László Nemes tells us how he approached filming the unfilmable with blistering Holocaust drama Son of Saul

Set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, László Nemes’s Academy Award-winning Son of Saul plumbs the depths of human cruelty. The Holocaust has been filmed through multiple lenses, ranging from the sentimental to the macabre, but Son of Saul is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, with Nemes turning the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust into a series of tangible nightmares.

Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that the reconstruction of the concentration camps for the sake of storytelling was an obscenity and a handful of critics have been disparaging of Nemes’s debut, with Manohla Dargis of the New York Times going as far as describing the film as “radically dehistoricised and intellectually repellent.”

When The Skinny sits down with Nemes to discuss the film, he explains his family’s connection to the Holocaust and his choice to represent humanity at its most desperate. “It’s a tragedy I know in a very intimate way,” he says. “This is the one that, although it only affected me in an indirect manner, it was very profound, as if the destruction of my family was already transmitted to me in my genes.”

This level of intimacy may be why the number of people who have found Nemes’s depiction of Auschwitz legitimate far outweighs the naysayers. Shoah documentarian Claude Lanzmann, famous for his disapproval of dramatised representations of the Holocaust, praised the film as the “anti-Schindler’s List.” For Nemes it was incredibly important to avoid the type of sentimental narrative that has become synonymous with the Holocaust. “For me, films dealing with this subject tend to deal with it in a static way, presenting it from an outside perspective and I want to go into the inside,” he explains. “I wanted to have this immediate sense of reality, without all the projections of the post-war period; the safe path established by Holocaust films with the coats, striped uniforms and all the iconography. It had to be raw.”

The camera and Son of Saul

This immediacy is achieved by Nemes and his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, via their precise control over what the camera glimpses. The film follows a Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul, played by Géza Röhrig. Erdély keeps the camera close to Saul’s eye level throughout, providing a very limited perspective of the events surrounding him. “I wanted to give the measure of the plight of one human being in a very visceral way,” Nemes says. “I wanted to communicate this through the means of cinema. Cinema can be a very immersive art form and I wanted to grab the viewer and take them on that journey.”

Nemes has been vocal in his desire for the film to be screened in 35mm. “The organic quality of the film stems from my interest in cinema being an immersive experience. I’m interested in films that transport viewers into a space and time that the viewer can’t feel. To me space means something, it means something regarding the continuity of life, and I’m really interested in that – how space evolves and its relationship to time.”

Shot in a square 1:37 aspect ratio to focus the attention on Saul rather than his surroundings, the film’s limited visual information leaves the soundtrack — and the viewer's imagination — to do the harrowing task of visualising the action outside the frame. Audio is therefore central to the film. “Sound was paramount and we worked on it extensively,” says Nemes. “I was there for the entire process of sound mixing, even picking which fire sounds from the library to use. This film had to be visceral and sound is there constantly to say much more than the image, it gives the mental image to the audience of the enormity of the context.”

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Son of Saul presents the Holocaust as a conveyor belt of inhumanity. For Nemes it was imperative that the camp looked and felt man-made, from the grinding metal doors that imprisoned the victim’s blood-curdling screams, to the crunch of human bones and roar of the fire pits. “It’s a crematorium, a simple factory designed to kill people on an industrial level. I didn’t want to take the viewer into a world of fantasy, I wanted the viewer to have this sense of reality.”

This focus on humanity’s capacity for evil is what separates Nemes’s film from other Holocaust narratives, forcing the viewer to understand that the atrocities at Auschwitz aren’t incongruities of history but merely one moment in the continuing chronicle of mankind’s proclivity for violence. “There’s no one guy for you to project the evil on to – it’s machinery that’s already in place,” he says. “It forces you to look at yourself. It’s why German audiences have problems with this film: you cannot identify the evil character. It’s a machine, a monster living inside us.”

Saul is a Sonderkommando, who, as the film’s opening caption explains, were prisoners coerced into assisting with the atrocities that occurred in the camps. The Sonderkommandos’ unique perception of the genocide formed the perfect perspective for Nemes to examine his own country’s culpability in the Holocaust. “In Hungary there were a few Nazi officers organising the round-up of Jews but everything else was done by the Hungarians. Not just the state but the citizens too; it was a collaborative effort to kill the Jews. This wasn’t only in Hungary, but Hungary had the record for the fastest deportations.”

“I wanted to show that Hell is a constant possibility within civilisation”

The film opens with its most harrowing sequence, entering an Auschwitz crematorium where Saul’s duty as part of the Sonderkommando is to clean up the gas chambers after the mass executions. We learn nothing about Saul’s past, but his reaction to the screams behind the metal door implies that he’s been in the camp for some time. The work of the Sonderkommando was a form of complicity far beyond mere survival, as each knew they were to be killed at some point. They’re very much the walking dead and this proximity to death helped Nemes explore mortality and human behaviour from a unique vantage point. “I think the Sonderkommandos are victims to whom death is being stretched over a long period of time,” he suggests. “They experience death not in themselves but indirectly and in an extremely cruel way, sometimes having to burn their own families. Their role is extremely hard to understand. They are in between the victims and the perpetrators, stuck in a world between the living and the dead.”

We see Saul and his colleagues looking on expressionlessly, their faces inanimate, as new arrivals are ushered into the chambers. They proceed with their duties like automatons, checking for valuables within the clothes of the recently slaughtered and scrubbing the blood from the chamber floor as the corpses are dragged away. The performances in Son of Saul are terrifyingly detached yet full of pain and suffering. How did Nemes elicit performances of such entrenched suffering? “I made them read all the testimonies and manuscripts from the Sonderkommandos,” he explains. “I wanted them to read everything and know what the everyday life was in the crematorium. Then I tried to make them forget it all, so they had to integrate everything. Usually I had to bring down the emotional level on the set because they would project their own emotions into the scene. We had to find a frequency of resistance that was low-key and at the same time intense; a robotic way of being.”

The film’s title relates to the body of a child that may, or may not, be Saul’s son. Throughout the film, as his fellow Sonderkommandos undertake an elaborate escape plan, Saul desperately searches for a rabbi to perform burial rights on the corpse of the child. Is Nemes suggesting that religion could provide the possibility of peace within oneself during such atrocities, or is it an attempt to find hope and dignity amid the horror? “It is in a sense about religion: it’s about the God within, it’s just we try to kill God first. This film is about human suffering and the human experience in Hell and I wanted to show that Hell is a constant possibility within civilisation.”

Son of Saul is released 29 Apr by Curzon/Artificial Eye