To walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes is, in many ways, what moviemakers want audiences to experience when they dedicate a couple hours to following a character’s narrative arc.
The typical means of achieving this, however, presents the story from an outside perspective, one that limits how close, visually or otherwise, we can get to the subjects on screen. Establishing shots, montages, stylized close-ups, all assembled in the editing room, contribute this formal cinematic grammar, eliciting a controlled emotional reaction.
Throwing most of these notions out the window, Hungarian first-time director László Nemes devises a peculiarly organic film language for his Holocaust-set debut Son of Saul—in this writer’s opinion, the best film to open stateside this year—and by doing so, truly achieves that profound connection between viewer and protagonist that marks a slice of cinematic truth. The story forces audiences to, as much as possible, walk in the shoes of a man who was part of the Nazi killing machine.
Hungarian actor and writer Géza Röhrig transforms into Saul, a Jewish man in the Sonderkommando, a group of concentration camp prisoners selected by the Nazis to carry out the most abject tasks related to the gas chambers: disposing the victims’ bodies. In the face of his atrocious reality, what keeps Saul from losing all sense of purpose is his mission to bury a murdered young boy whom he believes to be his own son. The magnitude of such horror never feels exploited by Nemes, who instead presents events with a subtle straightforwardness that mirrors the desensitization necessary for surviving this rigorous, inhuman labor.
Shot on 35mm in the 4:3 “Academy” aspect ratio, using a form of controlled chaos so apt for its nightmarish world, Son of Saul is a masterful achievement. You could easily mistake it for the magnum opus of a celebrated auteur—yet it’s actually the work a new filmmaker (albeit a former assistant to master auteur Béla Tarr), one with sharp views on cinema today.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine: Son of Saul is shot with an unnerving immediacy guided by the protagonist’s facial expressions and his unwavering mission. Why was this immersive perspective important for you as a storyteller? What did you feel it had to offer that a more external point of view couldn’t?
László Nemes (LN): We wanted to convey something about the human experience within the concentration camp, to present an internal point of view, a human point of view, rather than having the usual external point of view that [Holocaust] films operate with. When you analyze those films, you come to the conclusion that the points of view presented are more the points of view of guards and SS soldiers than of victims. You cannot have an encompassing vision of the concentration camp with the way these films use their imagery.
That was one thing, but also we didn’t want to use the Holocaust for its dramatic value, just to [arbitrarily] raise the pressure on the characters. We wanted to interrogate the nature of the human experience within the camp and that meant going to where the victims are, and the victims are almost always forgotten. Survivors are not forgotten, the victims are forgotten, so we wanted to go into the world of the dead and not the world of the living. The world of the dead includes shadows, people who are still living but who will die soon, and these shadows also include the member of the Sonderkommando, the special squads of the crematorium.
We wanted to narrow the field of vision of the film because we wanted to talk to the individual through this portrait of another individual, because the face of the individual should give the measure to everything that goes on around. The human face gives the measure to all. It gives everything perspective, whereas you cannot represent everything in a frontal way. If you represent it frontally you reduce the scope of it by making it understandable. We didn’t want to make it understandable. We wanted to use the imagination of the viewer as a medium to hint and to create an intuition of what it might have been like to be in middle of the camp with the limitations, with the lack of knowledge, with the frenzy and chaos.
MM: Was this marriage between thematic concept and aesthetics present from the inception of the project? How did you carry it on set in order to draw the viewer visually into Saul’s world?
LN: Yes. Once you have a clear-cut visual strategy, and in this case it was that we wanted to accompany he main character, then everything has to follow in a very coherent way. It gives you guidance. In this case, we knew we had establish a code of conduct on what to do and what not to do. We didn’t go beyond the capacity of one human being visually. We wanted to stick to one character, one individual. If he is pushed down to the ground, we go down with him to the ground, if he goes to the water, we go to the water with him. We wanted to use one lens, the closest to the human perception. We had to have longer shots and we had to have beats within the scene and not edit for beats. It’s more like internal editing that takes place within the frame.
We didn’t want film “drama,” the sort of emotional interpretation of the situation, but rather the situation itself. In this kind of situation you don’t have time for emotion. We are in a traumatized world. 2015’s emotional mindset is not the one that existed there. We really wanted to go back to the beginning and to the here and now of the extermination and this documentary approach guided us. With the cinematographer [Mátyás Erdély] being brought to the project very early, everything was in place. Then what has to be done is preparation: designing the shots, and so on and so forth.
MM: For you, Géza, how did this intimate, almost intrusive, approach shape your performance and the way you expressed Saul’s emotional state?
Géza Röhrig (GR): I knew why it was that way. I fully understood and agreed to it because I saw the point to why the camera was following me so closely. On the one hand it was challenging because the human face is extremely expressive and sometimes even unintentionally things can be seen on it, so I had to be very focused not to slip out from the state of mind that the role required. The other challenge was to make sure that Saul’s manic and intense obsession, with his plan to bury the boy, is even and that there is no sort of rest in his passion. That had to be felt even when my face was not visible. For a big chunk of the movie, what you see is really my back, arms, or shoulder, and they are taking the role of my face so to speak. They are occupying the center of the screen for quite a long time. A back or a shoulder are very monolithic things, they are not like a face, so the only thing to do is to make sure that that shoulder and back are also in that state of mind—if a shoulder has a mind!—you know what I mean. I don’t think there was any room for cheating because the camera was so close to me, it was all clear, and it would have been terribly consequential.
MM: How much of a challenge was it to mold a fiction story, with a central fictional character, that’s still grounded on the historical context and information you found about the Sonderkommando?
LN: First came the context of the Sonderkommando, and then years later came the story of one man who works in the Sonderkommando and who wants to bury this child he takes for his son. The two things were very much united in my mind. There is this archetypal story, which is very simple, that is included in a world that we had documents of, but not full knowledge of because the history of the crematorium workers is recorded only in testimonies. We had to know where to take liberties with the historical material.
MM: Were you concerned about how much you should or could show, in terms of the gruesome imagery and the brutality of the acts being committed within the killing machine?
LN: We didn’t want to make a horror film. We stick to one face and if we see something else it’s because his gaze is directed at something linked to his quest, but usually we stick to him or we show very little of the surroundings and of the horror. In this way, for me at least, everything is there to represent one human being. We have a sense of responsibility, but we don’t have to interrogate ourselves on whether we have a sense of responsibility because we know we have it. We show almost nothing. We show much less than the usual Holocaust film.
GR: I think viewers think, before seeing the movie, that this will be an issue, “Will I be able to watch this through?” I haven’t met anyone who is running out of the theater who really got a sick reaction. We did it with tact. We didn’t want to exhibit certain gruesome images for their own sake.
MM: Géza, how do you see Saul as a character? Is he just reacting to the circumstances, has he given up and is now just acting mechanically, or are his actions heroic in the midst of so much despair?
GR: I view Saul as a community of one. I think he is a lonely man. Even in this situation where some people around him still form friendships and there is small talk, Saul is not going with the herd. He is on his own and that makes him a lonely man. There is a certain distance, not just from the others, but I think he realizes that it’s a very natural impulse to ask questions, to analyze, and to figure things out, and I think he makes a conscious decision: “If you are going to think here, if you are going to feel here, you are not going to make it.” He, especially in the first few minutes of the movie before he meets the boy, is in a very minimal mode of existence. He is really just doing everything he can to sustain his physicality. He is after his duty.
Once this encounter with the boy takes place, everything changes. I believe that in some way the death of this boy resurrects Saul. With that added life from the boy’s life being in him now, so to speak, he is able to see though different lenses. He gets this clarity of vision as a gift. He knows for sure that he has to be grateful to this boy that woke him up, and that he has to make sure that he buries him, because what else can you do for a dead person besides burying him? That’s the only communication you can have with a dead person. This turns him into a happy man, and that smile at the end of the movie, to me, it means the fulfillment of his quest. He did what he could. He gave it his maximum effort and the outcome is partially successful because he wasn’t able to bury the boy with the Kaddish, but he saved him from the fire. That’s really all we can, to do our best, and let everything else we are not fully in charge of play out.
MM: The fact that Son of Saul was shot on film and is also being projected on film is a rare occurrence today. It’s almost incredible to think we have become so used to digital by now. Why was it important for you to shoot on 35mm, both technically and aesthetically?
LN: First of all, because of the layers, the levels of color contrast, and the depth, 35mm allowed us to have a very good internal perspective of the image even when the focus was not right or there was a huge area out of focus. That’s something that’s strangely washed out in digital and is very deep on film. For me, film is cinema. It can’t be separated from cinema. Film pushes you as a director to make decisions before the shoot and on set that are necessary for a director to make. Otherwise all these decisions are pushed back to the editing room and transform directing into the sheer assembling of recorded data. For me, the ability to make a choice is so important. When you shoot on film it gives the entire shooting an incredible tension and concentration that you don’t have in digital. It doesn’t push you toward shot inflation or multiplication of angles.
You have to have a craft. The digital world destroys craft. It destroys the process of filmmaking and pushes television methods and television aesthetics into the realm of filmmaking, thus killing the methods of filmmaking. Also projecting on film is something that we are losing and it’s a tragedy. Projection is half darkness and half an image. It corresponds to the projection of the viewer’s own world, within this situation of light and darkness. It’s a hypnotic process under which still images become movement in your head and that’s the magic of cinema. I think people respond very strongly to seeing this film on 35mm, to feeling the texture and the physicality of it because they are now used television-like aesthetics. I think that we should at least protect the core of filmmaking from television methods. The norm is digital now and I think it just destroys the overall vision level of people.
MM: There are always other actions happening in the background of the frame, even though we are mostly focused on Saul’s odyssey. It feels all organically choreographed for maximum realism. Tell me about directing both the foreground and background, and making them work cohesively on screen.
LN: We planed everything in advance very meticulously in terms of the foreground and the background. I had a director, a friend, who was hired to direct the background action. In a sense, everybody was being instructed by a director on the set, which was important, I think. We knew that Saul was part of the work process. He was part of the machinery. He was part of a factory. We needed to establish the context very strongly. We needed the context to work in a very effective and believable way. In order for that to happen, we usually put the background action in place on set, and then we added the main action, which is the reverse of the usual work method. This introduced, into the organization and the planning, a sense of chaos and frenzy. I think this is something that also has to do with the camp, which was a mixture of order and chaos.
MM: Was Son of Saul difficult to finance given its very specific artistic and thematic qualities?
LN: My key creative crew gave everything they had to this project. To finance it was difficult, but everybody was committed from the beginning and they were convinced that this film should be made.
MM: Géza, how has Son of Saul changed your acting career? Will we be seeing more of you on the big screen in the future?
GR: My acting career was dormant [laughs], but I write. Now, these past months will show me what the future holds. I’m open to it. I think that if there is a role that is able to move me and galvanize me just as Son of Saul did, then I think I can bring that character alive. I’d love to do that.
MM: It often seems like filmmakers are precious about their debut feature. Why did you feel this was the best idea for your first feature-length project? Son of Saul has become one of the most important cinematic events of the year.
LN: The human experience in the camp is something that had never been approached. I wanted to talk about the dead because we never talk about them. It was also a way to establish that cinema is about the involvement of the imagination of the viewer. It has to be. The history of cinema is the history of the viewer’s involvement in the films, whereas the television mindset kills the viewer’s involvement and actually wants to dominate the viewer and impress the viewer. There is no more projection of the viewer. It’s one-sided.
For me, cinema is also about taking risks and ambition. These are the things that we are losing because now individual voices are being increasingly erased for a common and established approach, which resembles more and more the television transmission of events. This is the death of cinema. I’m trying to resist that by fighting for film and fighting for the magic of cinema, and that means that we shouldn’t forget the viewer. MM
Son of Saul opens in theaters December 18, 2015, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Featured image photographed by Ildi Hermann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics