Son of Saul

Son of Saul: How First Time Filmmakers Made an Oscar Frontrunner

There are few films more harrowing in 2015, and few debuts in the history of cinema more impressive than László Nemes astonishing work Son of Saul. It’s a film that caused a sensation at Cannes, winning the second highest award from the Coen-led jury and convincing many who saw it, myself included, of the emergence of a true cinematic talent.

The story of the Holocaust has been told numerous times before on film, of course, as has the tale of the the Sonderkommando, those Jews who helped police their fellow brethren and shepherded them towards death. This is a film about stark ambivalence and finding humanity in the ashes of destruction, a quest for light in the dark that may be as futile and insane as the horrors that surround. 

The film relies upon an extreme close-up shot of its protagonist, played by Géza Röhrig with a grace and power that’s truly one of the great performances of the year. The film rests upon his shoulders, and it’s remarkable that a performer with such sensitivity and accomplishment was able to collaborate with Nemes and the other performers to craft such a work.

Following the film’s lengthy festival run, including a stop at TIFF, the film is now opening wide for awards contention. Already a shortlist candidate for best-foreign, the film is a front runner in that category

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Dork Shelf spoke at length to Röhrig and Nemes about this unique project. We begin with Röhrig, who studied at Yeshiva with hopes of becoming a Rabbi. We talk of the complexity of the tale, the challenges of bringing it to life while doing justice to the memories of the events while recognizing the importance of telling a cinematic, audience-accessible tale.

Dork Shelf: This movie does something quite extraordinary. It’s that it says something which has not been said in this way. And a huge part of that is thanks to your performance. What was your reaction when you first read the story?

Géza Röhrig: I believed in it from the first so to speak. I was very interested in the subject matter, especially after seeing The Grey Zone by Tim Blake Nelson. I knew about the Sonderkommando and I thought that a great movie can be done about it. 

It’s pretty much the only type of prisoner that I think it could work in a cinema, simply for physiological reasons. When someone is 70 pounds, like a walking corpse of Auschwitz, that can’t be done by an actor, it’s just very extreme. The Sonderkommando members were different – yes, they were fed, but they had no hopes, they knew that just as the previous group they were going to be liquidated too.

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I thought in cinema, this group, with this special squad, a great movie can be done. 

DS: There have been a great many films that have tried to tackle the subject of Shoah. 

GR: I’m still very frustrated with the genre of Holocaust movies. I think that by and large it’s a very unsuccessful genre of world cinema. They water it down, making way too many compromises on the altar of entertainment to my taste. They are cheaply sentimental to the degree that some of them deviate from historical reality. 

So, when I read Son of Saul, with all of my suspicions after reading it, I was very relieved. It understood the pitfalls to be avoided just as much as I did and I was very happy to see that I was on the same page with the director. 

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I’ve been living in the U.S. and László’s been living in Budapest. We met up in person and we discussed it over countless nights in details and it never has changed. Our mutual approach. And from what angle can it be done and all that, so I believed in this movie from the get go. 

DS: Your own journey is fascinating – you started in punk rock, you went to Auschwitz, it made you want to become a rabbi, and now you’re an actor. The film has a bit of a punk, less-is-more feel to it. 

GR: There were a few chief points that we were very careful not to do and at the top of the list was voyeurism. We didn’t want to fall into excess. We wanted to use this train partly because as you said less is more. There is so much to be left for the imagination of the viewer as opposed to getting almost hedonistic with this suffering, this white hot blood-chilling terror. That is tempting of course, but I think it’s so much more powerful to leave it on the periphery, in a murky way, as opposed to putting it right into the focus of the picture and making up what it claustrophobic obsession of just one face of one person and one day of that person.

We had to compensate the viewer for that with the sound. The soundtrack is extremely rich and very unspecific – you hear all kinds of things and at times, you aren’t even able to distinguish what’s a machine, what’s a noise and what’s a sound. I think that creates this very complete, immersive, visceral experience that takes you right into the here and now, melting the distance between the viewer and the screen. 

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We didn’t want to narrate, to novelize history – everybody knows what happened, so we didn’t want to go there. We didn’t want to go to the emotions either. We didn’t want anybody to cry during this movie or after it, because crying is a release, it’s a relief. We didn’t want to get cathartic in that sense because people do feel better after crying. We wanted to deliver a punch in the stomach that gives you a hard time to breathe.

DS: The camp is never mentioned – We can presume it’s probably Auschwitz, but there’s nothing specific about it. By doing so, this does not have to be a story about Jews in 1944 – this is a universal story about trying to find humanity in the scope of utter, corrupt evil.

GR: Exactly. And of course, some of the qualifiers are accidental, are changing all of the time. So let’s say you that one third of the Jewry was purged. And a couple of decades after also one of every three Cambodians were murdered and in different technological settings, different climate. But to kill one third of an entire nation, basically does manifest some sort of insanely cruel and naked evil that was in action in Auschwitz. So you’re 100% right, it’s a universal thing, just like human psyche is universal.

Unfortunately, I would dare to say that the Cambodian genocide would not have happened without Auschwitz. Once it’s done, it becomes a precedent leads to things becoming a pattern and it’s a permanent possibility. Genocide, it’s in the books now. People know that it’s there and it could be done. 

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It is done as we speak – people in Darfur, ISIS, you name it. That is why when people naively or ignorantly ask “why are these guys so obsessed with the Holocaust, that happened 70 years ago?” – it doesn’t really ring true to claim that we are living after Auschwitz. We are living the times of Auschwitz. 

I can hear the monster snoring in the mountains. Nothing has changed and if you look at what’s going on now in the world, the government announced their condemnations and so what? Nobody does anything. Assad has been murdering 200,000 of his people. What about condemnations into the microphone? The reality of Auschwitz has never left. It’s not that we don’t want to close or turn the page, it’s just that it wouldn’t be valid. We are still on the same page. 

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DS: A religious person will look at the actions of your character and see them absolutely in keeping with a spiritual belief that if one can find a moment of grace within this horror, a spiritual closure within the spirit of atrocity. Those that are secular will look at this as the ravings of a madman that wants to do a spell on a dead child that is likely not his own. What’s your own reaction as not only a religious person, but also as somebody given very serious and provocative thoughts about this, can sort of articulate those two dynamics at play in this film? 

GR: The existence and the institution of the Sonderkomando is very important because I think it is revealing really the most demonic face of Nazism. Nazis are very barbaric but when it comes to psychology, they were yet very sophisticated. They knew fully well that in order to destroy God’s image in us, it is not enough to transform humans into walking corpses. That won’t do it. In order to destroy God’s image in us they had to undo the person’s morality. 

Anybody’s morality is located in the will to resist evil – that’s where our humanity is. By forcing the Jews to participate and assist in the killing process, they made us like one of them. They were dragging us down to the rock bottom of their morality and, by doing so, they were depriving the Jews even from the soul of being innocent. 

That is the worst and most unforgivable thing, to make Cain out of Abel. The whole machinery of death was run by Jews. These people, my heart goes out to them and I have an utmost respect for them. 

DS: Do you empathize with them? Would you have seen yourself in their position? You play the role with empathy. But clearly you cannot play a role like this without thinking what you would do yourself.

GR: Right. So here is the question. The charge of collaboration of the Sonderkommando is very personal to me. It’s partly because I grew up in communism and a large section of the society were informers and agents and they were reporting about each other. By inclination or because of my upbringing, I was a very purist in that regard. I was pretty easy and fast to pass judgment on these people. And to be honest, I still am. 

When it comes to the Sonderkommando, my utmost respect are for the members who preferred to commit suicide and sneak into the gas chamber. But that doesn’t mean that I would label the ones who did not. I think from 2015, sitting in an armchair, talking with an iPhone in my hand, and for me to judge these people would be outrageous arrogance. 

I would suspend judgment. And to reject, refuse this attempt of Nazis to shift the burden of the guilt on to the victims. They wanted to make the Jews partners in their crime – they did the same by the way with the leadership of the Jewish councils all over Europe, by forcing them, giving them 24 hours to provide lists of names. It’s the same way, it’s more sterile, but it’s the same thing basically. That is the thing that really, boils, that makes me so furious, to get these people and to dirty them with their own people’s blood. 

You ask what would I have done? No one knows that. I do know actually a son of a Sonderkommando member here in the U.S. and it’s just beyond the bounds of human vocabulary. I don’t think any experience I’ve had qualifies me to answer your question with certainty, but I think I’m quite aware of what was eating these people after. Surviving the camps was one thing, surviving the survival was another.

There’s a story comes to mind about the Sonderkommando member who in his will insisted to be cremated. He asked his sons to bring his ashes back to the others in Auschwitz. He was basically saying yes, I did enjoy in my late 80s as a Polish American – my swimming pool, my double garage, my suburban lifestyle. I was a happy grandpa. In spite of that, you know, who did I belong to, really? My buddies and fellows in the Sonderkommando, this is the place I really want to rest forever. 

The Sonderkommando did not have the closure. 100 of them were liberated, and the Soviets were walking around in Auschwitz and they were asking the Jews, point out who were the Sonderkommando and if someone was identified they shot the guy right there on the spot, spitting on him, saying you’re worse than the Germans because you killed your own. So they had a terrible rep. 

Other prisoners hated them – they kept their hair, they were not in the regular pajamas, they had better food. Some of them had wrist watches for making sure that they turned on right time for the shift. From the outside, for the other fellow prisoner Jews, they looked like VIPs, they looked like the big guys. It wasn’t written on their foreheads for the people in the barracks to know that there is no place for envy because people would be all executed, liquidated in a couple of months as the crown witnesses of the crime. 

So it took history, it took a couple of decades to rehabilitate the role of the Sonderkommandos. I just met someone in Florida not long ago, who was also despising them. I had to do my best in every sense, and I really hope that this movie will serve some justice and will help people to understand how this really happened.

DS: I’ll try this again – People would understand how somebody would become more religious after the Shoah, and somebody would abandon God after Shoah. 

GR: Well listen, I don’t think we are going to solve the problem of theodicy over the phone! I found this at 14 years old already, first visiting the camp. Auschwitz is not just part of human history, this is not the evil as it has traditionally been understood. This is something evil in its most pure and direct form and it basically calls everything into question. Yes, it is a human event played out in human history by human actors, but at the same time, the question at the end of the day, how does one hold firm in a belief in a God who is providential and caring? A God who is involved in our lives with the kind of personal intimacy and concern that is the hallmark of our God in the Bible? 

I got angry and I do not let God off the hook, not until today. Sometimes I feel like if God was not at Auschwitz, who needs him anywhere else?

On the other hand, Auschwitz is not the totality of human existence. I understand it’s not passing episode, but still there’s more to life than Auschwitz. I figured out quite early that I’m going to live my life without ever finding a knock down intellectually coercive argument that would convince the atheist and we would make a believer out of everybody. I understand that obviously, by divine purpose, just like I’m able to deflect some of the traditional negative arguments against God, I also will not be ever able to prove and settle and find an argument for that that would reconcile the kind and the magnitude of evil in the world that was manifest in Auschwitz with the image of the God that I’m praying to 3 times a day. 

I ponder these questions and I’m very challenged by these but at the same time, I really find unnerving how some people just by the bare mentioning of Auschwitz and they just like throw up their hands like it’s a done deal. It’s not so simple. It is something that I think again we will all wrestle for the rest of our lives.

I would also point out is that I don’t think it’s a particularly Jewish problem. I would say that Holocaust should present in a similarly grave problem for Christianity. I do believe that Christianity has failed the greatest test since its origin by abandoning the Jews in the time between 1933 and 1945. If all the leaders of the Church, or just half of them, would have spoken up and would have said no, we are not Aryans, we are Jewish in spirit as they claim to be, theologically speaking, then Nazism would have collapsed. But the truth is they did, not unlike the Sonderkommando, participate and collaborate. I find that as problematic for a Christian as for the Jews, to come to terms with what happened. 

There is no way to argue that the Germans were not fully aware of what they were doing, and yet they were proceeding with intention and even with relish. This could not have taken place, this state sponsored full scale genocide without cooperation from every side of the society. 

DS: How has the film and your experience of showing the film to people, changed your own perspective, not only on Shoah, but on your own relationship with God?

GR: As I told you, this is an ongoing struggle of mine. The latest development I can share with you was yesterday when I was reading in the morning Psalm 28 and in the first lines it says [quoting in Hebrew] “Be not deaf to me, hear my voice, but more importantly, be not mute to me.” In other words, every communication is twofold, back and forth. I can’t and I won’t argue with anybody to say that to some degree God pretended to be deaf for a good while during the Shoah. Most of the victims were religious Jews and they were “davening” [praying] feverishly to somehow be saved. And God was deaf.

But, was he mute? And that is the more important thing to me. I’m reading these accounts from how some of the prisoners would at 5 am to form a minyan and face towards east in the dark morning. They were davening and trying to keep up with the calendar and fasting on Yom Kippur in Auschwitz.

I just see through their acts the real Sauls, people who did what they had to. Thus God was deaf at the time, but he never got mute – That’s more important, because to truly love somebody, you rather shut up and you rather lose him as a listener but have him as someone who talks to you. 

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Part II

The following day I had a phone conversation with Director László Nemes about similar themes – the complexity of bringing the story to bear, the challenge of bringing something new to this type of film, and the personal toil telling the story took on the filmmaker.

DS: Some would argue we just don’t need another film about the Holocaust. I want to talk about the chutzpah to do another take on Shoah, and what you saw in this story that prompted you to tell this tale.

László Nemes: Really, the Holocaust has never been communicated in cinema to affect viewers in a visceral way. It’s been more approached like context or in a very prescriptive fashion. I wanted to reach the audience in a more personal way so they can make a very individual experience out of it in an immersive way. 

When I found the text, the manuscript from the members of the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz, they were in a way very immersive, inviting the reader to experience the present of the extermination process. I wanted to have a journey that’s never been proposed to the viewer.

DS: Were you looking for a film project on this topic? Or did you just learn about the Sonderkommando?

LN: Yeah, I had been trying to come up with a story or an angle to approach it for years. It took me years from the first reading of these texts, and also the text by a Hungarian doctor from Transylvania, Miklós Nyiszli. He wrote upon coming back in ’46, and talked about his experiences within the crematorium. He had a special pass – he was an assistant to Joseph Mengele – so he saw and knew a lot of things, much more than usual prisoners. His book was extremely powerful and gave details that no other texts have given about certain aspects of the extermination.

DS: When somebody does a Western or a gangster movie, you have the burden of what has come before it – you don’t just want to make The Godfather, you don’t just want to make The Searchers, you want to make it your own. But this has even a different kind of baggage because not only are you dealing with expectations of what a Holocaust movie is, but you’re dealing with the fact that this is an unfilmable event. It’s easier to not do it than to even try, yet you were drawn to it. Was that just the ambition of filmmaking? Or was it that you felt that this story had to be told in this way because it hadn’t been previously?

LN: I think the very core of it was that I was told what it would be to be inside. I’ve always been angered hearing people asking why people went to the gas chamber like sheep. It’s also very much part of films, of cinema on the subject, establishing a set of codes to reassure the viewer and most of the time tell stories of survival, which survival being really the exception and not the rule. I really wanted to go back to see what the story of the dead and not the story of the living.

The Sonderkommando were between the two – the dead and the living – and I guess that’s why it was interesting to be in the present with them.

As a filmmaker I want to find ways to make cinema communicate in a untraditional way. The descriptive, all-encompassing approach that cinema often proposes actually reduces the scope of the event. This kind of infinite horror and inhumanity can only be hinted at and not shown. 

DS: Could you talk about your collaboration with Géza Röhrig? The entire film basically takes place on his face. 

LN: I think he, well, Géza is a very smart man and he has been thinking about it for longer than I did. He has had a very interesting journey as well, you know.

DS: From punk rock to Rabbi is an interesting journey.

LN: He was supposed to become a rabbi at some point. He has an instinctive understanding of the things that we wanted to communicate. We didn’t have to talk that much during the shoot, for example. I wanted him to read everything that was written by the Sonderkommandos, but then he had to forget everything because I didn’t want him to communicate in a very expressive manner emotions that only cinema can produce. In a way, it’s very overdramatic that couldn’t take place with people who were traumatized in a really unimaginable way. 

DS: Did you rewrite the film once he was cast?

LN: No, I think he was cast because he had in a way what the main character had – The obsession, the stubborn quality that the main character has. He is very expressive with his face, but he is not expressive in the movie because I wanted him to be much more low key. At the same time everything is the possibility of the viewer – one can feel all of these expressions and the layers that exist within him.

I just had to tell him, a little bit less, a little bit more – We didn’t have to verbalize everything. From the very first day he was there in a dimension that we wanted and he didn’t really have a learning curve. 

He had a learning curve for learning how to behave on a set, how to, all kinds of, how to spare his energies and things like that, but he didn’t have a learning curve as to how to be in the film. 

DS: One reading of the film is that you see the hand of God in what this man is doing. And you see hope and faith in him finding whether or not it’s his son, a moment of grace within the horror. On the other hand, if you are a more cynical viewer, you are going to see what he does as suicidal lunacy and that he is wasting his time and jeopardizing the lives of those around him for some sort of mystical bullshit. When you were putting it together, you managed to maintain that the film itself doesn’t come down on one side or the other?

LN: I think I’m not a reference to watch the film because I am too much inside of it in a way, so that I don’t have any kind of, I don’t have distance, I’m too much in the making of it.

DS: But certainly when you’re editing, one edit would make him seem more heroic, another edit can make him look more foolish. 

LN: It’s interesting what you say. My hope certainly is that even the most cynical of the interpretations at some point can have some kind of crack or opening and that what seems to be absurd and in the middle of the most absurd world doesn’t seem absurd anymore. It’s about when there’s no more hope or no more God, there can be a God inside, an inner God that would tell us what to do and how to remain human. I think that’s the question of the film, whether the viewer can identify with it in a very personal manner. 

DS: As you said, you’re too close to it, but was that a journey you yourself went on while you were writing the film?

LN: Yeah, absolutely. Making this film was a journey. I come from a family that doesn’t have any kind of religion anymore, because we only had the cultural Jewishness. In a way it was a way of connecting to a sort of magical God that they discovered, it was more the inner God, what morality means or might mean. 

DS: This is your debut film, which is even more insane. You have people like me who are gushing about it. That must be on the one hand very happy, on the other hand, fill you with a little bit of trepidation and pressure for what your next project is. How have you been handling the success since Cannes and has it all been positive?

LN: It’s such a great pressure, but we’re working on our next project. It takes place in 1910 Budapest, and it will be a Hungarian project. I want to keep control – The worst thing that can happen is that I fail. It’s just that filmmaking is always in a sense being on the edge, especially when you don’t want to make the same films as other people, so I will be experimenting and finding new ways of telling stories, I hope at least.

DS: What was the first film you saw that make you think I want to make a movie?

LN: Maybe Ben Hur or Singing in the Rain, two films very important for me as a kid.

DS: What is a film that you saw that you know you could never make, but you love anyway?

LN: Fellini’s films, like Casanova. 

DS: Could you talk about your choice to shoot on 35mm?

LN: For me and my cinematographer, filmmaking is on film, and not video, I found it might be interesting to have video to film robots, but for human beings, I have the feeling that it’s more appropriate to have a sort of magical process, the physical magical process. You have a physical trace, and it’s a chemical process, but it’s still magic, you know? It’s not immediate, you have to deserve it. 

There’s a sort of lack of immediacy that creates a sort of ritual around it and also such concentration that you can benefit from as opposed to digital where you switch on the camera in the morning, switch it off in the evening. Also, we are very interested in working with the image. We wanted to have out of focus, interesting out of focus range, it had to be deep in its structure and its colours. You cannot have this in digital. Digital flattens the image and film tends to have perspective and levels much more. 

We’re definitely losing projection on film as a society and we’re still trying to have prints for our film, the intended format. Film projection is when you alternate images and darkness in a hypnotic manner. It’s a physiological process and I think human beings need physical things. It’s just that non material information is something that doesn’t stay and doesn’t make anybody dream. It just, it’s too plain and too frozen and too rigid. I think we need to defend filmmaking as opposed to being killed by television mentality and content mentality of the internet. 

DS: Did you edit digitally or on analogue?

LN: Yeah, we did the editing digitally, but the next one, I will edit it as Spielberg does. 

DS: Did you do a Digital Intermediate or was it chemically timed?

LN: No, and that’s the thing, that’s the introduction of the DI that started to make filmmaking more expensive as opposed to digital making, the video making, the DI is not necessary. DI is only necessary for when you really want to make it look weird. I think DI can be useful, but it’s not necessary. Usually, people are lazy and they don’t want to time in a photochemical way, but we timed this film in a photochemical way, didn’t go through a computer.

DS: What has it been like living with this film for the last few months, after the initial craziness and excitement of Cannes?

LN: Well, I think I haven’t been out of the machine, I’m still in the middle of it, it hasn’t stopped. I’m trying to come to the film to certain releases such as the American release, the French release, UK, Germany, Hungary before that. It’s going to be released in 60 countries and obviously, we’re doing this whole campaign, the awards campaign, so it’s been very crazy it’s very new. It seems unreal – first time film, first time director, from Hungary, about 1944, does it make sense to be in the middle of the spotlight. It’s very good, it’s very reassuring that a film like that could travel and so many people could talk about it on so many continents. 

DS: Have you shown this to, specifically have you done screenings for survivors and or family members of the Sonderkommando? 

LN: Survivors, for sure, family members I’m not sure, we still have a long way to go. People, including survivors, said to me that they were scared of seeing the film and then eventually when they saw it, they thanked me for making it. It wasn’t the film that they expected and it seems that we could give a voice to something that’s really hard to communicate about the experience of the camp. 

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