The Reality of Death: An Interview with László Nemes about "Son of Saul"

The Hungarian director discusses his Grand Prix-winning debut feature, Holocaust cinema, the complex form of his film, and more.
Amir Ganjavie

László Nemes. © BEA KALLÓS

Son of Saul, the first feature film directed by Laszlo Nemes, is the story of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando in a German concentrate camp who attempts to bury a dead boy that he claims is his lost son. In order to tell the story in the simplest and most minimalist way possible, Nemes’s camera sticks to the main character's point of view and progresses with his movements. Thus, the viewers see the world through Saul’s eyes; everything is filtered through his perspective and, therefore, spectators can see only blurred images of his surroundings or hear only very raw sounds. The movie was recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a few awards, including the Grand Prix. The following interview is the result of a small roundtable interview with the director.

QUESTION:It is very bold of you to tell a fictional story about the Holocaust given the fact that such topics are always faced with different sorts of reactions and controversies. What motivated you to do this courageous thing? 

LÁSZLÓ NEMES: Let me tell you what our historical adviser sent me in a message. He said that he calculated that out of the 430,000 Hungarian Jews who were deported in eight weeks 100,000 were children under eighteen who went to the gas chambers. And these children never got a burial. He hopes that one day we'll have 100,000 viewers in Hungary, which will never happen. We will have 5,000 or maybe 1,000 but if 100,000 viewers go to Hungary and view this film then maybe each of them is in a way representing a buried child. It’s very emotional. It’s an open wound and you can feel it. People tend to say that it is just another story about the Holocaust; like another story about the Titanic, some kind of mythical thing. No, it’s not just another story. For us, it’s the present, not a myth. That motivated us to make it—we wanted to make it present.

QUESTION:Where did you get the story? Was it based on historical fact or was it fictional?

NEMES: The story of this man wanting to bury his assumed son is a fictional story which just came out of my mind. I chose the name Saul for the main character because I liked it. It was this one line with which we started the whole project five years ago. Then with Calra Royer, my co-screenwriter, we did extensive research, reading the personal accounts by Shlomo Venezia and Flip Muller. We also read the records of Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who had a job in crematoriums. Zoltan Vagi , Gideon Greif and Philippe Mesnard historically helped us in the project. We also watched previous movies on the topic and of course there was Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, especially its Sonderkommando sequences.

QUESTION:I realize that the movie did not find any sponsor in France or in Israel. Was this because of topic or was it related to the fact that it was your first experience?

NEMES: We went to different countries to find funding for the movie because it was essential for us that different countries be behind this film but unfortunately it was not possible to find sponsors. After a couple of refusals we went back to Hungary to ask for additional funds from the Hungarian National Fund but we were also financed by an organization in New York. In the end we were very proud that we could make a film on a low budget and we hope that it will be easier for the second film.

Why did this happen? I think that it’s always very, very difficult to finance the first film, especially when it deals with such a topic and with such an attitude. I personally can somehow understand why such a topic could be tricky. If this film was a little bit more ironic, if it puts more guilt onto the Jewish people or suggests any kind of opinion about that then it could have become very problematic. Everyone seemed to like the topic and they told us that the script was extraordinary and that they think the film will be very good, but they saw it as a risky film.

QUESTION:There is a long list of directors who have already worked on this topic. How did you try to differentiate your movie from the classics focused on Auschwitz, including Schindler’s List (2003), Nightand Fog (1955), and Shoah (1985)?

NEMES: I did not just want to differentiate myself. I wanted to make a film that makes sense to me and maybe another generation. This generation is not the one that deals with these stories of survival as a way of processing the trauma of the Holocaust. This is a generation that doesn’t know much about anything of this sort, so it’s a disconnected generation. The aim was to try taking this out of the history books and bringing it into the present in a sense while concentrating on one man, one human being, and not being distracted by all kinds of things that we want to show and tell.

For this movie which tells its story in just a day and a half, I did not look for a hero and I was not interested in the survivor’s point of view; I was not even interested in representing too much of the death factory. I only looked for a unique perspective in order to tell the story in the simplest and most minimalist way possible. I looked at the world from the perspective of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew, a member of the Sonderkommando, and I limited my film to his perspective. I wanted to make something very historic into something very alive and I wanted to boil everything down to the dimension of a single human being. Given this, my movie is very different from a survival story such as Schindler’s List, which is a very good film, very talented, dramatic, and almost epic. My film is not about survival; it is about the reality of death. Survival is a lie, it was the exception. Furthermore, I did not focus on a group but rather on the experience of one human being. Having said this, it is not only a subjective stance since we see him as a character representing something universal.

QUESTION:How have you tried to achieve this stylistically?

NEMES: We really restrain our aesthetic strategy to telling very little. We set out to do that and it was the plan since this is what we think is the right way to deal with the subject matter. When you’re not limited visually, cinema can take you to levels of over expression and become a spectacle but then you actually end up with less emotional impact. On the other hand, when you rely on fragments and restrain the possibilities of viewing, of perception, you will probably create something in the minds of the viewer that will be much more capable of suggesting and feeling the things that I think are related to the concentration camp experience, the extermination camp experience.   

Basically, our approach was to exclude everything that was not fundamental to our story and that did not represent anything that gives you the sense of where we are and what is going on because we assume that the audience will understand this after a few minutes of the film. It did not seem necessary to show anything specifically about the historical circumstances. Our plan was to focus on the story of one man and his mission while excluding everything that is not part of this.

QUESTION:Is that why you used so many close-ups and diffused lighting in the movie?

NEMES: I think that’s the most direct and honest way of depicting one person and his or her world because it’s like accompanying someone – in this case, through hell. The viewer becomes a sort of companion to the main character, who cannot hide from the viewer anymore. Yes, the lighting is diffuse and as simple as possible. We created that because we used the same lens, a 40mm, and we did not use something which would enlarge the field of vision; this technique helped us to stay at the character’s eye level..

QUESTION:One of the central issues in Holocaust movies is how to represent the atrocities, especially the human massacre in the gas chambers. Your movie did not represent these and only blurred them in the background. How does this fit with your stylistic strategy in the movie?

NEMES: In fact, I forbid myself from representing the face of horror or going into the gas chambers because I restricted myself to Saul’s perspective. He worked there for four months and so he lost his ability to see the horror, no longer noticing the atrocities because he got used to it. Given this, I blurred out the horrifying images in the background. The camera stops at the gas chamber door, only entering after the act of extermination to show Saul removing the bodies and washing away their traces. There was no way to show the images of death since I wanted to stay within Saul’s perspective.

QUESTION:Why did you decide to shoot this movie on film instead of digital?

NEMES: My DoP, Matyas Erdely, and I decided to shoot on film because for us this represents the essence of cinema, the soul of cinema, the physical image projected is cinema, everything else is a different thing. We both feel that it is not alright that industrial trends are making film vanish. If we wanted to shoot this film on digital then you could not have compared its quality with what we have right now. The effect we looked for could not have happened with digital since we looked for a certain instability in the images, a certain organic form; 35mm film was more useful for this goal. You get less with digital and this is a regressive step, we wanted to fight against it and we wanted to make sure that new generations understand what it means to shoot on film. Furthermore, working with film is also a matter of discipline and it gives you the sense of directing; it means that you ought to make your decisions beforehand, so you cannot push everything back to the editing room. 

QUESTION:Son of Saul shows your peculiar and at the same time amazing work with sound since there are many voices and noises in the movie. What was your philosophy behind this and how does it relate to your overall aesthetic framework?

NEMES: We had to make certain choices regarding sound in the film, such as deciding about the cries from crematorium and whether or we wanted them to be very realistic. If a realistic choice was the concern then we would hear nothing but people crying because they were dying. Here, we wanted the sounds to remain very rough rather than very sophisticated. I could say that sound in general worked to complement the images. Orders and commands came in and there are facts mingled with the images; the idea was to be very evocative with sound but at the same time not to exaggerate because we want that the sound to remain very simple, not very rich. We could read the sound as the constant reminder that there is more happening than what we see. It completes the perception of the image, which is very fragmented, and works to deepen the perspective of the machinery of the camp and this hell. It deepens it.

QUESTION:We hear different languages in the movie and I realized that you worked with Yiddish trainer. Can you elaborate more on the role of language in the film and its relation to your sound aesthetic strategy?

NEMES: There are eight languages in the film and we worked with actors from different countries. Yes, in fact we paid special tribute to Yiddish and it’s really very important for us. This is the language that was spoken for hundreds of years and lost its position after the Holocaust. We wanted to show the importance of Yiddish for this community, which has not been addressed enough in previous movies on this topic. We had a wonderful Yiddish coach, Mendy Cahan, who actually helped us in this process. There were different types of Yiddish according to the geographical regions, such as how if you were from Ukraine then your Yiddish accent would be different compared to if you were Hungarian. So, in this movie, in the little sentences that people spoke we wanted to show this difference of language and bring back that memory of speech. We realized that in this hell, the language might be the only home that people could have. Furthermore, because of the Holocaust, a new language was created as the Yiddish language changed drastically, which we tried to show in the film.

QUESTION:And I guess this choice of Yiddish language impacted your work experience with actors.

NEMES: Yes, the actors had to adapt to the reality of language in the work and express themselves in a way that made the spectators believe that they knew the Yiddish language from childhood – that they were born into it and were going to die with it. It was really important for us to resurrect this dead world in the film.

QUESTION:What other factors impacted your work with the actors?

NEMES: We worked significantly on their body language, on regulations in the camps, and what they ought to do for survival and how this impacted their body movements. For example, actors needed to always look down and to never try to look at an SS guard in the eye, they had to take off their hats to salute, and they needed to talk very quietly while walking. Another central challenge for the actors was that they had to show a limited spectrum of emotion since they had already lived in Auschwitz for a period of time and so they were in a very reduced state of mind. Given this, I wanted the protagonist to act with a very minimalistic approach and to be as emotionally detached as possible. The actors in the movie could not put their post-war emotions into the characters; I had to fight with all of them in the hope of asking them to consider themselves as the mere factory worker in the film.

QUESTION:So you developed a very comprehensive style strategy for the movie but how much did you improvise on set?

NEMES: We refined things in rehearsal. We added elements or removed elements that seemed like too much, gestures that didn’t seem right, words that didn’t seem right, or maybe added a little colour, but we did kind of stick to the script. From the beginning we said that we did not want to make a beautiful film full of icons; it should not be appealing but we also were not looking to make a horror film. We decided that we did not want to go beyond Saul’s field of vision, hearing, and presence and should stay with him in this inferno.

QUESTION:You were Bela Tarr’s assistant. What was his impact on your stylistic choices for this film?

NEMES: Bela Tarr for me was my school. He taught me the essential things to become a filmmaker but there is no other relationship. He was nervous when I talked to him so I haven’t talked to Bela in eight years. While it was very important to work with him, it’s part of history now.

QUESTION:Representing such a topic such as the Holocaust is not only a matter of artistic and aesthetic choice. Given the importance of the topic and the atrocity involved, as a filmmaker you need to take a moral stance. What we show or do not show is very important for a Holocaust movie. As Goddard said, cinema failed because it fails to represent a good documentation of the Holocaust. How did you decide what to show and what not to show?

NEMES: If you want to show too much then you might end up with less but at the same time, if you show too little then you might downgrade the impact of the horror of the Holocaust. The moral question then was how to balance these two facts. To approach this question, we worked to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. As I explained, we were focused on one man and one man only. And when we are paying attention to him we are not paying attention to the background, to the surroundings, to what’s going on, to the deportees, to the deported, to the dead, because he somehow got used to them. Because of this strategy, the background and its imagination become very important for viewers. The spectator knows that he is looking at a factory of death and sees some fragments of it, which demands that he imagine things. I think this power of imagination is morally very important because we cannot recreate the horror; we can only suggest it. And we did not want the viewer to be on top of the horror because it’s not understandable and perceivable as a whole; in the reality of Holocaust there is no god’s point of view. But, if you bring that back to the human level and show a little then it can give the spectators much more perception of the horror in a truer sense. That was the point that we wanted to make.

QUESTION:You chose a problematic character for your film since he is trying to save his son but others criticize him because he endangers their mission in the process. In one scene, he loses the bomb material which was essential for the success of the revolt because he seems to be more focused on his own work than any form of solidarity. Why did you choose that kind of ambiguous character for such an intricate topic?

NEMES: We didn’t look for a hero. We wanted a marginal figure, someone more low key and normal, because previous films about the Holocaust all dealt with abnormal, exceptional characters who wanted to survive. However, the camps were not about survival; they were about death and to survive was an exception. What we looked for was inner survival and this is linked to the story of the boy. This quest does not make sense to anybody but him, though we hope it does to the viewer. For this reason, I focused on the Sonderkommando. What I liked about that group was that it was very real, concrete, and tangible; it explains and describes things in a normal way, it explains how a death factory functions with its organization, rules, shifts, and hazards.

QUESTION:What exactly is inner survival for you?

NEMES: What happens when there is no more hope? Is there a possibility of a voice that would be ignited within, that in a sense tells you what to do? Is there such a thing? That is the central question, whether or not you have a choice inside. These are, I think, the most central thoughts of the film, at least for me.

QUESTION:I think the film was very bold not only for the reasons we discussed regarding the style and theme but also for the ending, which is bleak rather than optimistic.

NEMES: I think it’s hopeful. I hope it’s absolutely hopeful.

QUESTION:But, they’re all dead.

NEMES: As I told you, my movie is not about physical survival. It has always been about inner survival.

QUESTION:But even his inner survival depends on delusion, looking at a boy and deluding himself into thinking that it’s his son.

NEMES: I don’t think so. I think any way, any means, and path to the inner voice is a good way.

QUESTION:Even in madness?

NEMES: Yes, even in madness and this is the point of the film. In a mad world, in Auschwitz, yes. In Auschwitz, there is no other choice. You have to be mad. What we usually define as madness in real life does not have any meaning in Auschwitz. That was an entirely different set of coordinates. So what is madness? What is happening within Auschwitz is supposed to be super rational. Don’t you call that madness?  It’s absurd. The madness of Saul is the most important human quality; it is a form of revolt.

QUESTION:I guess that you look at things from a Focauldian perspective. As Foucault argued, it is difficult not to think of politics as a matter of madness, saying that there is a form of revolt involved in madness. Here, we are acting against the form of organization in which we are supposed to live so apparently you are on the same path.

NEMES: In fact, the movie represents different forms of resistance with the armed revolt being just one of them. Saul looked for another form of revolt and his attempt to look for his personal quest is what defines it for him. He is constantly moving between different places and behaviours, such as looking for a rabbi to give sense to his personal form of resistance. In the face of a situation in which there is no possibility of hope, Saul’s inner voice commands him that he must survive, to be able to do a thing that bears meaning. The command was to show respect to a meaningful act that from the very origin of the community was very sacred, namely to bury a dead body.

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