László Nemes spent five years bringing his latest film, Son of Saul, to fruition. It’s a deeply personal and harrowing film about one man in a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2. The film went on to win the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
With Son of Saul being released on DVD at the end of this month, Antoine de Baecque caught up with the writer/director to find out about his passion and inspiration for this film.
How did the idea for Son of Saul come to you?
When we were making A londoni férfi (The Man from London), in Bastia, the shoot was interrupted for a week and in a bookstore I found a book of eyewitness accounts published by the Shoah Memorial called Des Voix sous la cendre (Voices from beneath the Ashes), also known as The Scrolls of Auschwitz. It’s a book of texts written by former Sonderkommando members from the extermination camps, who had buried and hidden their written testimonies before the rebellion in 1944.
What was the Sonderkommando? What did its members do?
They were prisoners chosen by the SS to escort new transports of prisoners to the gas chamber buildings, to get them to undress, reassure them and lead them into the gas chambers. After, they would remove and burn the corpses all the while cleaning the space. And it all had to be accomplished very quickly because other prisoner convoys were already on the way. Auschwitz-Birkenau functioned like a factory producing and eliminating corpses on an industrial scale. In the summer of 1944, it was running at full capacity: historians estimate that several thousand Jews were assassinated there every day. The task they were assigned was gruelling and they were regularly eliminated every three or four months by the SS in order to ensure that there were no witnesses to the extermination.
Why did you choose to use the Sonderkommando accounts?
I have always found movies about the camps frustrating. They attempt to build stories of survival and heroism, but in my mind they are, in fact, recreating a mythical conception of the past. The Sonderkommando accounts are, on the contrary, concrete, present and tangible. They precisely describe, in the here and now, the “normal” functioning of a death factory, with its organisation, its rules, work cadences, shifts, hazards, and its maximum productivity.
But how do you go about telling a story, a fictional story, from within the middle of a fully functioning extermination camp?
That was problematic, indeed. I didn’t want to make a hero of anyone; I didn’t want the survivor’s point of view, nor did I want to show all or even too much of this death factory. I just wanted an angle that would be specific, pared down, and to tell a story as simple and archaic as possible.
I chose the viewpoint of a man, Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian Jew, member of the Sonderkommando, and I strictly upheld this position: I show what he sees, no more and no less. Yet it isn’t a “subjective stance” because we see him as a character and I didn’t want to reduce the film to a purely visual approach. That would have been artificial. Aesthetics, any exercise in style or virtuosity needed to be avoided.
Moreover, this man is the point of origin of a unique, obsessive and primitive story: he believes he has recognized his son among the gas chamber victims and is henceforth determined to save his body from the ovens, find a rabbi to say Kaddish and bury him. Everything he does is defined by this mission, which seems utterly pointless in the context of the hell on earth that is the extermination camp.
Did you forbid yourself anything?
I didn’t want to have to show the face of horror openly, or to recreate the atrocity by going into the gas chambers while people were dying. The film strictly follows Saul’s movements. So we stop at the door of the gas chamber and enter only after the extermination in order to remove the bodies and wash away any traces of what occurred there in preparation for the next group. These missing images are those of death; images that can’t be reconstructed, and shouldn’t be touched or manipulated. Because it is important for me to stay with Saul’s point of view, I only show what he sees; what he pays attention to. He’s been working in the crematorium for four months: as a protective reflex, he no longer notices the horror, and so I relegated the horror to the background, blurred or off screen. Saul only sees the object of his quest; this provides the film with its visual rhythm.
How did you film it?
The cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, the production designer, László Rajk and I decided well before the shoot that we would stick to a sort of dogma: “the film cannot look beautiful,” “the film cannot look appealing,” “we cannot make a horror film,” “staying with Saul means not going beyond his own field of vision, hearing, and presence,” “the camera is his companion, it stays with him throughout this hell.” We had to always remain at the character’s eye level and stay with him.
Saul wears a jacket with a big red cross on the back…
Yes, it’s a target. The SS used it to make it easier to shoot men who tried to escape. For us, it was a visual target for the camera.
We quickly understand that there are several contradictory dynamics at play in the camp: submission to the SS, solidarity among Sonderkommando members, but also tension, rivalry, and the organisation of a resistance.
Naturally, several standpoints exist within this horror, ranging from renouncement to resistance. And there are several ways to resist. In the film, we witness an attempted rebellion, which in fact took place in 1944, the only armed revolt in the history of Auschwitz.
As for Saul, he chooses another form of revolt, which may seem irrelevant in this context. In following his personal quest, Saul is led to navigate between these different behaviors: recovering the boy’s body takes him to the autopsy rooms where he finds the doctors and anatomists. Looking for a rabbi brings him to come across other Sonderkommando groups and convoys of Jews headed for death. Circulating through the camp eventually leads him to take the same path as the resistance members. He sees all of this in snatches, and the audience too must try and understand by piecing together the fragments. No one has all the elements in hand; everyone has fragments with which they attempt to construct their vision of the whole.
Sound plays an important role in the film.
The sound designer, Tamás Zányi, who has worked on all my films, and I decided to work on a sound that was very simple, raw and yet quite complex and multidimensional. The multiplicity of tasks being accomplished, shouted orders, screams, and many languages were all intermingling. Sound can superimpose over the image, at times even taking its place, because some images are missing and rightfully so.
Who is the person who plays Saul?
Géza Röhrig isn’t an actor, but a Hungarian writer and poet who lives in New York. I met him several years ago. He came to mind for the role probably because he is someone who is in constant motion, his facial features and his body are always changing. It is impossible to tell his age, for he is at once old and young, but also handsome and ugly; ordinary and remarkable, deep and impassive, quick-witted and slow. He moves, is given to fidgeting, but also knows how to keep silent and still.
This character and your film endeavour to contrast a death ceremony and the death factory, rites and machinery, prayer and noise.
When there is no longer any hope, from the deepest part of this hell, Saul’s inner voice says to him: you must survive in order to accomplish an act that bears meaning, a human, age-old, sacred meaning; a meaningful act that is at the very origin of the community of mankind and religions: paying respect to the body of the dead.
Interview by Antoine de Baecque
Son of Saul will be released on DVD on 30 June 2016.