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Hell on Earth: László Nemes on Son of Saul

László Nemes (Illustration by Madeleine Richter)

László Nemes’s debut feature Son of Saul was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. Taking place over a 36-hour-period at Auschwitz in 1944, the film tells the story of Saul, a member of the “Sonderkommandos,” the Jews forced to handle the dead bodies in the crematorium. When Saul sees the body of a boy he believes to be his son, he goes on an impossible mission to try to save the body from the flames and find a rabbi who can recite the Kaddish to give the boy a proper burial. Saul risks everything and stops at nothing, even when it becomes clear that his efforts pose a risk to the rebellion being planned by the other Sonderkommandos.

Nemes was born in Hungary in 1977. His father is the Hungarian film and television director Jeles András. However, Nemes was raised by his mother, a teacher of philosophy. In 1989, she and Nemes moved to France where she took up a teaching post in Paris and the two of them embarked upon a new life. Although Nemes began making films in his teenage years, a love for history led him to enroll in a program at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, followed by classes in cinema studies at the Sorbonne.

In 2003, László began working for the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. He assisted on the Prologue segment of the collaborative film Visions of Europe (2004) before working as an assistant director on The Man From London (2007). László then wrote and directed With A Little Patience (2007), a 13-minute meditation on boredom and brutality. The story follows a clerk as she goes through the routines of her day, admiring a small brooch in her breast pocket before arriving to her desk, where she watches S.S. officers rounding up a group of civilian Jews at gunpoint in a nearby forest. The film was shot on 35mm film and stylistically set the tone for László’s work to follow — long takes, continuous time, shallow depth of field and a fragmentary examination of history through the lens of one individual.

When I met László it was the end of 2006. We had both moved to New York to study filmmaking at New York University’s Graduate Film Program. As a student, László kept to himself mostly, but if you drifted in the hallways you might catch word of his plans or glimpse haunting compositions in the editing room. My first exchange with him was during an introductory cinematography class where we sat at a small table with a 16mm ARRI camera before us. László thoughtfully held it, clicked open the magazine, and showed me how to place the film inside. His movements were gentle and deliberate, in every way revealing a great reverence for the medium. László left the program at the end of the year and went on to make two additional short films, The Counterpart (2008) and The Gentleman Takes His Leave (2010). The subsequent period was devoted to bringing Son of Saul to life.

I recently spoke with László to discuss aspects of his feature, Cannes and his filmmaking.

What was it like to have a father who was a director? I had a lot of experience with movie sets when I was a kid. When I saw those, they made me dream a little, the costumes and all the special effects — it was this unreal thing taking shape in front of my eyes. My point of view has been in the middle between my mother, who has a very strong, ethical way of behaving and living her life, always thoughtful and empathetic toward other people, and my father, who can be very harsh and selfish. I had a vulnerable childhood, and I didn’t like living my childhood, but at the same time, it was interesting. I read a lot and I had a very rich internal world.

How did being Jewish impact you? I had a very hard time in school.  People called me “the dirty Jew.” It’s something that defined my perceptions of humans, I guess. I was pretty much scared throughout my childhood.  Also, a part of my family was assassinated in Auschwitz, and it was something we talked about every day.

When did the idea come to you that you would make films? When I was 14, 15, 16, I was making short films at my high school with classmates, so I already had this training of trying to build a crew. I still have those films. They are very stupid, but at least it was good training.

Your mom raised you on her own? Yes.

I wonder if your decision to become a director was a way to bridge the distance between you and your father? This is subconsciously very true, though maybe I have no willingness to confront this. But there is a legacy there. Maybe I’m not fully aware of it or maybe I don’t want to overanalyze it. Perhaps it’s a kind of unconscious or semiconscious way of chasing an illusion. I’m sure you’re asking me because of the subject of the movie.

Yes. And also because directing often requires qualities you mentioned struggling with in your father — a kind of harshness and selfishness. I think the difference is that I created a family around me, a family of collaborators. My screenwriter, Clara, my editor, Matthieu, and my cinematographer, Mátyás. We were a kind of family on set and this eased the way I could communicate with people.

Maintaining a close and consistent group of collaborators is something you talk a lot about. What does this sense of a family add to the filmmaking process? I couldn’t see myself making films alone. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not rewarding enough and it’s not interesting enough. These guys — they aren’t people telling me “yes” all the time. They are key in finding the obstacles, and I have to come up with solutions. And often they help with the solutions as well. So I’m not like a king. My cinematographer, for example, intervenes as early as the screenwriting process and continues raising questions throughout the shoot.

How do you manage this fragile balance between collaboration and maintaining overall control? Control is something I’m still discovering. How do you control? What kind of power do you have? I don’t know. Is it best to use soft power? Hard power? When can you start making compromises? What is the acceptable compromise? Do you have to reinforce your control, or maybe you can just soften your control a little because you already have a clear-cut strategy and approach?

In terms of books and images, what most influenced your approach to filmmaking? Noël Burch wrote a neo-Marxist book, Theory of Film Practice. It opened my mind to cinema and how its form communicates. Earlier in my life, I loved the photography of Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Hungarian photographers André Kertész and Brassaï.  

Is there a specific image that has been particularly meaningful to you over time? There’s this one photograph by Bill Brandt, of a man in a [top] hat in the fog. The image is very strongly engraved in my brain. What I like about it is that you can see the secret in the image: the offscreen, the hidden perspective, the unseen and the unknown. This is something that has always fascinated me. I also like that it takes place in times past but still exists in the here and now. I’ve been trying to deal with something similar in my films, to go into a different space and time but still treat it as this moment and not as a history book, because the historical context has already been represented. I try to immerse myself as a viewer, as a maker, into a world.

There’s another photographer I discovered only later in life, Saul Leiter. In Leiter’s images, you see a fragment of reality but it’s very limited. The point of view is specific, but at the same time you see very little of the surroundings.  We used this fragmented approach as a reference point for how we wanted to make Son of Saul. I find Leiter’s work very important.

After studying political science and cinema studies in France, you started working for Béla Tarr without any formal training in filmmaking. How did that initial meeting happen? Béla Tarr made this film, Damnation, which is just incredible — its thoughtfulness about the visual power of photography and how aware he is of the organic qualities of space, and the immersive experience of the film. I spoke a few languages, I could help him, and I knew it would be great for me. So I just called him. My work started with casting, and then I became important in production, first as his personal assistant, then as a second AD and eventually becoming first AD for tasks during preproduction.

What were the main lessons you learned from him? The importance of a long and rigorous preproduction. The importance of paying attention to details. And how to develop the kind of guiding principles you need to push people to the maximum.     

Was there anything in the way he was making films you felt you would do differently? Sometimes… sometimes I felt he was unable to make compromises, to ease his control, and that this later on could lead to worse outcomes. Not compromising may have had a positive effect in the immediate moment, but not necessarily in the totality of things.

When we met at NYU, you had already worked on big sets and shot your first short, With A Little Patience, on 35mm film. What was it like studying filmmaking with so much experience already? In my case it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t bring anything rewarding or usable. My time in film school reaffirmed the idea that it is better to learn directly from a master. If you want to become a filmmaker, I can only recommend contacting great filmmakers and learning from them. Béla Tarr was my film school.

What was the most meaningful thing for you at NYU? I met my editor, Matthieu Taponier. He became crucial in the following years in terms of making Son of Saul.

The initial idea for Son of Saul came from looking through an archive of eyewitness accounts you found in a bookstore in 2007, during a week off from shooting Tarr’s The Man From London. How did discovering these documents set your film in motion? When I found the archives, I began reading the writing of people who had died. When they had been written, those people had been living in the middle of the crematorium and saw everything. When I was reading the documents, I projected myself into the here and now. That’s why I wanted to make this movie, because these writings, when you read them, you forget about the postwar approach and all the things that happened after. I wanted the raw experience, because that’s what’s at the heart of extermination.

I’m wondering about the epigram in your first short film, a passage from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

…I could not Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.  

Although you did reference this in Son of Saul, it feels equally relevant. Yes. I discovered Eliot when I was 21 and since then have been living with his poems and never stopped reading them or having them in my mind. He is a very instinctive poet who approached both everyday life and mythology together. He created something timeless but also anchored in a specific time. His work is very inspiring to me, very cinematic. And I haven’t finished with him with this film. I plan on carrying him over to my next project as well.

The titles of parts of The Waste Land, “The Burial of the Dead,” and “Death by Water,” feel like titles of the chapters in your film. Not directly, but yes.

And allusions to the quest for the Holy Grail in Eliot’s poem, were you also reflecting on that? There’s definitely something in this poem about the plight of man’s suffering and the individual experience of it throughout the ages that echoes in my film as well.

Did you perceive Saul’s central mission of trying to bury his son as an objectively meaningful act or as a desperate attempt to create meaning where there was none? I think that’s something I discovered in the making of this film. When there’s no more hope and no more survival, is there still a voice that makes us human? Is there an inner voice that keeps us from losing humanity? This question is interesting.  What’s beyond survival? The people around Saul think what he is doing is senseless. But his actions still mean something to him and hopefully, also, to the viewer. I believe in the existence of a private law and morality that goes beyond the survival of the group, or group law. The law beyond law can be extremely precious and important to the most sacred essence of humanity. This is something that the story of Saul illustrates.

Did these ideas guide you while you were writing the script, or did they come to you only later? In the writing stage we worked very instinctively. We weren’t necessarily speaking of the meaning, and I’m glad we didn’t force that too much. The idea was to focus on a man burning his own people in a crematorium, and then finding a boy he thinks is his son, and then trying to bury him. The story came at the level of a tale, and we wanted to tell it as simply as possible. The heart of the film revealed itself only later, progressively, throughout the process of making it.

By following his inner voice, Saul goes against the group law and jeopardizes the rebellion. Were you worried this might cause viewers to lose empathy for him? The tension between Saul and the members of the rebellion is the interesting conflict in the film and how the story becomes dramatized. I wasn’t worried about the audience losing empathy. The film is structured like a mythological story where the main character has to go through trials. As a viewer, you are asked to be part of that journey and, along the way, consider questions about loyalty, survival and morality.

Many times you deliberately leave a character’s “true” identity unclear, or the meaning of a relationship between one character and another. At some point we had more backstory for each character. But then we understood that these people have no past and no future, they only have the present. So, we deleted the backstory with this objective — to be in the present moment.

You mentioned before your focus on fragmentation and the secret in the image. Uncertainty plays a major role in Son of Saul. Uncertainty is at the very foundation of the human experience. The visual limitations, the informational limitations, what is going to happen in the next moment. Where is this taking me?

What was your rehearsal process like, and what was your approach to directing the actors? We had one week of rehearsals on set. No rehearsals before that. It’s very hard to rehearse this kind of film because the performance is so physical. With the actors, my philosophy was to bring them to the here and now. To forget about the 70 years of postwar interpretation, the pity, all the layers that accumulated in the aftermath. I wanted to bring the actors to a very low-key mode of existence.

Elem Klimov’s Come and See has been an important reference point for you. What elements of this film spoke to you? The sense of chaos, of frenzy. I felt it had a connection to the frenzy inside the concentration camp, and how Klimov uses the camera as a companion to the main character. We also used it as a color reference, along with Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and the photographs of Saul Leiter. We wanted subdued colors: a little brownish, greenish, but still very natural looking.

Can you talk about your relationship with DP Mátyás Erdély? We met on the shoot of a common friend of ours where I was the AD and he was the DP, almost 10 years ago. When I had the script for With A Little Patience, I brought it to him and he immediately offered comments. He’s not the kind of DP who stays out of that. He wants to be sure about what we’re telling and how we tell it. I also intervene in his field, because I like controlling lighting and composition and lens choice. So it’s a kind of duo — he intervenes, I intervene — which brings a lot to the project. We have a tremendous process of discussion and argument. It’s sometimes very long and painful.

How did you decide on the technical parameters of the film? For lighting, we wanted to recreate the look of a factory, which is the way it really looked inside the crematorium. We didn’t want filmic lighting or beautifully lit imagery. For this reason, we used only practical lighting. We shot the film within one interconnected set, but it had no feeling of being a movie set.

Saul’s psychological state feels very much reflected in the film’s camera movements. Can you talk about how you achieved this? We wanted the camera movement to feel as close to human perception as possible. We didn’t want that nice floating feeling that a Steadicam brings, so we decided to shoot handheld. The image is fleeting, on the run, with no time to contemplate anything. We also wanted to keep the camera at eye level.

For a lens, you chose the 40mm. Yes, it was a 40mm Zeiss Master Prime. It just came naturally. During our tests it became clear that this 40mm was best. We also tested 50mm lenses and Cooke lenses. We found the Cookes too soft. We wanted a kind of sharpness, but not too sharp. And the out-of-focus range was very important. It was a deciding factor.

And you stayed within a very open aperture range to achieve that soft focus. Yes. We shot between T 2.8 and T 4.0 throughout the whole film.

What about special effects? Everything, including the fires, we created on set. This film didn’t go through a computer. We didn’t even have a digital intermediate. Everything is optical.

You emphasize the importance of “cutting in camera” — deciding on when to cut before and during a shoot. Did this make the editing of Son of Saul easier? For a film made of long takes, you have to be very disciplined and very coherent in the way you approach the material. We had determined a lot already and were cutting in camera. But surprisingly, there were still so many things to settle, and we worked on the edit for a while. It was a very painful process to make this film at all stages. There was no playfulness. It was a tough job, and I’m not sure it’s the way films should be made, because one should have real fun making a film. But it was such a difficult piece, and we had such a strong sense of responsibility, so it couldn’t be taken lightly.

The sound in your film is very nuanced and bold but also, at times, obfuscated.  It reminded me of Robert Altman’s use of sound, intentionally lowering dialogue levels to increase the attentiveness of a viewer. Did you have his work in mind? Yeah, Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a great influence. I’m glad you noticed it. The way it’s so hard to separate the human voices and make sense out of them, this was very intentional. We wanted to immerse the viewer into Saul’s world — so as much as Saul and his companions are in the middle of a place that is chaotic and hard for them to understand, the same is true for the viewer.

What was the experience like for you watching the finished film at Cannes? The entire film was very hard to make and I don’t have a triumphant feeling about anything. I only see the mistakes, and it’s really hard for me to watch and see it as a film. But I’m happy it’s not the other way around, that I’m so satisfied with it and the audience feels a different way. For now, I think it needs rest and it needs to be seen by people other than me.

I was recalling conversations from our time in school together about your favorite films and remembered Polanski’s Chinatown. I am a big admirer of Chinatown.  

That film was also shot with a 40mm lens. Wow! I didn’t know that.

You also loved Kubrick’s work. Yes. Kubrick’s method of working is something I try to research, to dig into. His method is fascinating and something I want to learn from. My favorite film of his is Barry Lyndon.

What about Hungarian directors? György Fehér, who was Béla Tarr’s mentor. Even though he’s at the heart of Béla Tarr’s work — and had a major influence on Bela’s stylistic shift in the ’80s — he has always remained in the shadows. He made two films, Szürkület and Szenvedély. They are incredible films, masterpieces.

What moves you in contemporary cinema? I think P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is very important. The approach to space in that film, his ability to create a very believable space. It’s very narrow in focus, not revealing too much. He resists all kinds of temptations. I’m glad someone in the U.S. is making films like this.

It seems there’s a recent trend in Hollywood to shoot with long takes. Do you think this is inspired by Hungarian cinema? I was impressed by Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. You have to be very disciplined to make a film like that. And definitely, the shooting style must’ve benefited from the Hungarian tradition, from Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr.

You often talk about the importance of shooting on film and not making films digitally. You devalue the images when you shoot digitally. Firstly, because you can shoot so many images, just the sheer number devalues it. And secondly, the immediacy of the digital image also removes its value. You don’t have to earn it or think about it too much. The brain gets lazy because you don’t have to come up with a plan. In filmmaking, you must have a plan.

It’s also about texture and this idea of a secret. The chemical image has a secret, whereas the digital image does not. The fact that the chemical image is unstable, also that the contours are much less precise, gives it a shroud of uncertainty, whereas the digital image is crystal clear and has no depth. The effect on an audience of a crystal clear digital image is that they feel they are inside the movie. I think you need the distance that film creates between movie and audience, which allows the audience to project themselves into the film.

The other major issue is the projection of the film itself, because a projected image of film is something we’re losing right now. The extinction of film projection is like closing down the museums. It’s like looking at paintings only on the Internet and shutting down all the museums.

There’s a transformed state of mind that’s necessary to be able to experience a projected image — a film is darkness and light. It’s a hypnotic process. Whereas when a digital movie is screened, it’s always bright. There’s no hypnotic process. If you lose that, you’re losing an incredible physical, emotional journey and you replace it with television, which you can just watch at home.

I’m surprised that countries like France, supposedly a country of cinema, betrayed the very essence of cinema for industrial reasons. The change has been triggered by sheer interests of industrial groups, of projector makers, camera makers, distributors. We must stop this shift.

At the same time, digital is so vulnerable. We are a civilization that’s taking pictures digitally and making films digitally. These things do not exist. They don’t have physical roots in our lives. They are zeroes and ones. In 10 years, all of this could be gone, and this civilization could be living without its own memory.

So, it has far-reaching consequences. And I think it’s important for new generations — not just filmmakers but everyone — to understand this, that it’s an incredible experience to make films on film, because that’s what gives the whole experience the taste and magic.

What was it like at Cannes, having the only film shot on 35mm film? We didn’t project our film digitally, either. I think this is a disaster, a disaster and a betrayal. You could tell from the technical crews in Cannes how glad they were to screen a 35mm film. And you could sense in the audience that they had a completely different experience watching it, just by the fact that it was film.

A major reason for shooting on digital is budgetary. What is your reaction to that? It’s not true. It’s a lie. As a filmmaker, if you want to shoot on film, you can shoot on film. If I could do it in Hungary as a first-time feature director, anyone can do it.

But what about cheaper tools leading to greater access and new points of view? I don’t believe in the democratization of cinema because it hasn’t given rise to experimentation. Cinema has stopped being a form of experiment. People are just accepting the language in telling their stories; they accept the conventions of the grammar. It’s not the cinema of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s anymore. The willingness to experiment is regressing. This is because you have to overcome obstacles in order to make a film. Obstacles help the process. Digital just kills this spirit.

In a larger context, do you feel the events portrayed in this film speak to a broader cycle of injustice and suffering that humanity cannot escape? I think it’s very much in human beings, the possibility of major civilizational suicide and destruction on an unprecedented level. My next film is going to be about that in subtext — civilization going into the abyss. You can see the 20th century as a period that started with the promise of a sophisticated world, but then ended with the certainty of massacre and dictatorship. It could have been different, but there’s something in the nature of man that makes everything more complicated.

Maybe filmmaking, then, can offer a possibility of setting a different future in motion? Yeah, it can. Films can create a sort of empathy in people, in the viewer toward human beings. For example, when you’re not just seeing the Holocaust as history but experiencing something more understandable, more visceral. Cinema can do it, so why not use cinema for this?

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