I had upset László Nemes. I can’t say I was unaware of the possibility. The director of one of the year’s most extraordinary films is quite serious, which would make sense for someone who decided that their first feature would examine the horrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of a prisoner who served in the Sonderkommando, the group charged with working around the gas chambers used to exterminate Jews in Nazi death camps. Yet he is also remarkably young — just 38 — to make something so accomplished as this debut which picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year and subsequently was named Hungary’s official selection for this year’s Oscars, so I couldn’t help but wonder whether a newer medium such as video games with its first-person approach might’ve influenced the total sense of immersion that separates “Son of Saul” from so many other films. Politely, though not after some slight recoiling from the table, leaving my question in the air for what seemed like an endless amount of time, Nemes shook his head and struggled to give what he would want as a considerate response since he’s nothing if not thoughtful.
In that moment, two thoughts occurred — one being that good judgment should’ve prevented me from putting this question to a pupil of no less than Bela Tarr, and the other was that just as “Son of Saul” concerns the story of man who fights to restore a shred of his own humanity by giving his son a proper religious burial against all odds after uncovering him as part of his grim duties, Nemes is passionately waging an uphill battle of his own in reasserting cinema as a preeminent artistic form, shooting on film and insisting on it as a form of public presentation wherever still is possible because of its inherent soulfulness. In “Son of Saul,” he’s made as convincing an argument as there’s likely to be on cinema’s behalf, conveying something that would be impossible in any other medium.
One need only to see the hundreds of extras speaking eight different languages as they roam around the camp that Nemes and crew have faithfully recreated on a budget of just over a million dollars to be awed by what the first-time filmmaker has undertaken, but what’s truly impressive is how you only ever see it at the corners of the frame as the film relentlessly follows its titular lead (Géza Röhrig) and allows the story to tell itself on his face, not diminishing the atrocities going on around him in any way, but rather to make an event so fixed in the public memory undeniably human and present again. Indeed, the flicker of celluloid in “Saul” beats like a throbbing heart, but Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (who achieved similarly superlative results in Josh Mond’s “James White”) have reimagined what can be achieved with one of cinema’s other great weapons — the closeup — to add further vibrancy, rarely straying from Saul’s side to witness his transformation as he stealthily moves about the camp within his limited privileges as a Sonderkommando.
For as much power as Nemes brings to the film, he has an equal partner in Röhrig, who surely would’ve been a favorite of Italian filmmakers during the heyday of neorealism with the experience of being a punk rocker, a Kindergarten teacher and a poet all somehow rising the surface of his expressive profile. Together, the two spoke about how they collaborated on “Son of Saul,” building the character of Saul and experiencing the reaction to what was a first feature for both.
How did the two of you first meet each other?
Géza Röhrig: We met at the Tisch School at NYU. I had been living in there for 15 years, and we met up in the living room of a mutual friend. That’s how our friendship started. Back then, László was making his shorts and a couple of years after, I got an e-mail from László, sending me the script. That’s how we started to think [about this] and for László to see if I could be in his movie and in what capacity.
Was the character really there on the page from the beginning or did the character come out of talking about it with Géza?
László Nemes: [Géza] is the character. There’s no huge backstory in this film. The character is defined by what he tries to achieve – this obsessive quality and also of being ordinary, because he is a little bit on the periphery regarding the other Sonderkommando members. He is not a hero. At the same time, there is a layer that starts to emerge as the film progresses about this character becoming a sacred man and we needed someone who was already the main character in a life in a way.
Géza Rorhrig: When I joined the production, I read the sixth version of the script, so it was basically done. All together, there were seven.
Was physicality a way into this character?
Géza Rorhrig: Yeah, László was very keen on that. I had to show him how I walk because he thought that this man cannot be some sort of intellectual. He has to be able to have what it takes to be a Sonderkommando member. Also, 70 years have passed by [since the Holocaust], and even in the movement and body language, people move differently and gestures are different. I actually had to go to gym. I was fortifying my physicality for the role while I was losing weight, so movement wasn’t the whole thing, but it was definitely a big part of it.
László Nemes: Didn’t you wear some weight down there on your ankles?
Géza Röhrig: Yes, to slow it down. At times, I had weight on my ankles. Even though I’m sore in 2014 at the time of the shooting, we really wanted to be in 1944.
László has said long lenses were used, but the camera follows Saul so closely and intently, what impact did that have on the performance?
Géza Rorhrig: First of all, it was much harder for the cinematographer to grab these handheld cameras, which are freaking heavy, especially walking backwards at times, so I would never complain. But of course, it added a certain challenge to my acting because the face is a sensitive surface, and if the camera is 30 inches from you, then you really have to know that even unintentionally you don’t express anything that doesn’t belong to the exact moment and demands of the film, so it took me a couple of days but you get used to it. The chemistry with the cinematographer was very important. We use the analogy of dancing, but that’s what it was basically.
László Nemes: We had to find a way to really stick to one character, so the camera [becomes] almost like a companion, accompanying him everywhere.
It’s such an immersive experience. How much of that were you able to create on set versus your work in sound design or other means?
László Nemes: For the picture, everything was done on set. For the sound, a lot of things were added in post-production through ADR, and we have a lot of voices in different languages, so we had to have the time to prepare everything. We had five months in post-production for sound only, which is a long process.
When you put all this effort into it, is it difficult then to reduce the story to its simplest form?
László Nemes: We wanted to keep simplicity at all costs.
Géza Rorhrig: Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It is true. It is the hardest thing to achieve, simplicity. There were a lot of nos – no monologues, no music…
László Nemes: No fancy editing, no opening. In acting with camerawork, no unmotivated camera moves. No voiceover.
Was there something you came across that helped you figure out what this was for you?
Géza Rorhrig: For me, as they say sometimes, nobody can make up what life can. When I was thinking of the Sonderkommando, right away I felt that this is not something that my imagination can help me with. It’s extremist to such a degree that my experience in life does not qualify me to imagine that. I really need facts, so I tried to read whatever I could about [Sonderkommando’s] lives and work, then the details that I remember [informed me]. For example, one person said that for the first few days, he always walked around the dead, and at one point he started to step over them because it made no sense anymore, so the losing of humanity… he had it in him but it was melting. It was decomposing. Lots of these chilling little details gave me this idea of what bare mode of existence that they could operate on, and that helped me move on.
The set [also] gave me a context that I could rely on right away and the inspiration was very helpful, as well as the makeup and the costume. At the beginning, we were rehearsing in a apartment with no furniture, so all these things somehow were outlets for me, for my tension and stress [that weren’t there when] I was doing it within the four walls in jeans and T-shirt.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
László Nemes: For me, everything was challenging in different ways. If it wasn’t actors from several countries, it was the languages. If it wasn’t that, it was the technical challenges or [handling all] the extras. It was difficult in different ways, but always very, very hard.
Géza Röhrig: You’d be surprised, but it was fairly even. I remember one scene that stumped me and for some personal reasons, I did not communicate that to anybody. When I’m walking up the stairs with the boy, and somehow the heaviness of a 14-year-old, and at the same time, this very happy feeling that I get to hold onto something so precious as your son’s body, so that scene was unforgettable. But otherwise, there was just very, very good teamwork. Sometimes I [was in plays] in my early twenties, there were all kinds of issues that came up. People disliked each other [on set] or [actor] A does what B should and that was the issue with competencies. This [film], I wish every one would be done this way. There was an understanding and dedication from everybody.
Since this is a first experience with a feature, was it different than what you thought it would be?
László Nemes: I cannot see the film as a viewer. I don’t have any kind of distance. When I made this film, I had a constant feeling that I was failing. I’m very hard on myself. It’s difficult not to see only the bad things – for the moment, I will see everything that I could not do the way I wanted to do it. But in a few years I hope I will be able to separate myself enough from this film and have my opinion of it.
Géza Rorhrig: The subject matter is very close to me for many reasons. From the moment I first saw it, it’s been the same – not that I can really verbalize it – and it just has its own life now. As a parent, you just take pride in how this movie touches lives and how the audience reacts to this movie. It’s a very lovely and warm feeling to see this.
Was there a moment when you thought the film was working?
László Nemes: I never did. I’d always tell myself it’s better this way than the other way around, but people have said, “This is great, you should consider it as a great film,” so [even though] I’m still in a very frustrated phase, what I can feel is the very strong engagement of the audience. One thing that I knew from the beginning and I still know, is that this is a groundbreaking film in the way this approaches human suffering during Holocaust. It has nothing to do with my appreciation of it, but because more and more cinema has been infected with television disease as a way of thinking. I think the cinema should affirm itself as the art of different visions – it should have much more of these groundbreaking moments. When I speak of vision, I speak of cinematic language. It seems that nowadays we have an established cinematic language and everybody works [using] that. But cinema should have a very strong pioneer movement constantly … This is the heart of cinema.
“Son of Saul” opens on December 18th in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater and New York at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A full schedules of theaters and dates is here.