by Len Weiler
Son of Saul is a powerful new film about a Jewish prisoner, working in the Auschwitz death factory during World War II, who discovers the body of a boy he believes is his son and determines to save him from the flames and give him a proper burial. The critically acclaimed movie captured the Grand Prix award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It is Hungary’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars.
Len Weiler and Annette Insdorf reviewed Son of Saul for EatDrinkFilms.
Weiler interviewed Son of Saul director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig in San Francisco in December.
Len Weiler for EDF: I want to congratulate you on your accomplishment. I saw Son of Saul at a screening a week and a half ago and it is still with me. It’s a powerful movie. This is a very dark story, in a dark period, in a dark and terrible place, an inferno really, and I’m wondering, this being your first feature film, what brought you to choose this particular topic?
László Nemes: I have no clear answer; it’s not necessarily a conscious process. But first, talking about the Holocaust, I was extremely frustrated by the common approaches that happened so far. And these approaches for me were frustrating and never succeeded in conveying something visceral about the experience of the camp, something that is really hard.
And then for the movies, it’s also linked in a way to my philosophy of cinema. I’m interested in a cinema that relies more on the viewer and leaves imagination for the viewer, and preserves a sense of secret and magic, because I think that this is what the human experience should be when experiencing art; as something that has to go through the viewer, the person that experiences the art. And that is less and less the case – it seems more and more like the transmission of a sports event; and that is a tendency that I have a big problem with. So in this film, I’m trying to get away from this spectatorial [sic] attitude, and explore the power of cinema and the possibilities that lie within that.
EDF: As an audience member, I certainly had that visceral feeling you describe – I was tightly holding onto the arms of my chair, in some ways feeling assaulted by everything I was seeing, and also by the soundscape. What came to my mind – and I don’t know whether you consider this a compliment – was the first 15 or 20 minutes of war in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, where the viewer is right there: it’s quite gripping, everything’s happening, it’s chaotic, scary, and this seems in some sense like what you are striving for and what you achieve – obviously in a different milieu.
Nemes: Yes. I don’t disagree with that analogy. It’s still a point-of-view narration. This is the case with war, and is also the case with the Holocaust, but with the Holocaust, you also have (which is much more threatening for the individual) the extreme conditioning and the limitations imposed on the individual. That is so effective because with the camp order and the camp chaos, the individual cannot see or think anymore. And it’s something that I try to convey in the film in a way that the audience cannot think or see; so it’s more a process of feeling what’s going on.
EDF: One of the things it seemed the movie was doing was trying to depict how desperate and despairing Saul’s situation was – and, by extension, everyone else’s in that situation. But many of the other Sonderkommando … were hoping and planning for some sort of rebellion or trying to smuggle out photographs to document what was happening. But for Saul, this was not something that he was primarily a part of, and it was not giving him any sense of life. In fact, he was like the walking dead, a zombie or robot. But when Saul finds this barely alive young boy (who soon dies) and forms the idea of giving him a proper Jewish burial – this is saving him in some sense. Was that your idea, that committing to this boy gave Saul a reason to live?
Nemes: You’re right.
EDF: Saul is somebody from whom everything has been stripped away, who has nothing left in terms of human dignity; yet his taking on this resolve (of properly burying the boy) suggests that he has rediscovered some sort of essence – that there is a core human consciousness, a soul maybe – being acknowledged.
Nemes: That’s the question the audience has to ask and to answer during the course of the film. When there is no more hope, no more God, no more religion, is there still a possibility for a voice, a voice within that would allow us to remain human. That’s actually a part of the film. In this place where people are not only killed but burned, and their ashes scattered – in a way they are being erased from the world, erasing for these people their very history. So, by doing what he does, Saul actually accomplishes the greatest revolt that there can be: trying to give history back to someone, to a child of Israel or the people, in a way. So that’s what the film is about.
EDF: One of the things that struck me, at least as translated, is that the Jews and other people going through the extermination camp are referred to as “pieces.”
Nemes: Yeah, well, the “pieces” were the bodies. That was the terminology used in the camp. The German word is “Stück.”
EDF: Geza, you are in every scene of this movie, filling the screen in close-up in most of those scenes, and you are amazing. I know from your bio that when you were younger, you spent a lot of time in the little town where the Auschwitz camp was located (Oświęcim). Could you explain a little about how that was meaningful to you and how it informed your role in Son of Saul?
Géza Röhrig: I was very young, I was 19 years old. I was in Poland to study at the university. I kept postponing my visit, until one day I just made up my mind to go and said this day is as good as any other. Auschwitz was largely empty, there were hardly any visitors; it was quiet and cold there. The Iron Curtain was still up. When I arrived, I sensed something right away. Time slowed down, and I had this feeling that this would be more than one day. So I decided to stay in the town. I was not there primarily to learn new things, as by then I was already pretty well-informed about what took place there, but the place itself had a very strong, radiating ambience. It has since lost this, at least for me, as I was there last year with my two older kids, and it was crowded with tourists, and it felt pretty flat. But I knew even before I returned that it could not be the same.
But you are asking of the significance of the nearly one month that I was there. I feel like I grew up there. It was very sobering, my entering the gates of reality. That’s where I lost my liberal optimism, so to speak, my unexamined faith in progress. I just knew right away that there is no way for the world to become a better place unless the people are becoming better people in it. I concluded that all these high hopes that came from the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the belief in reasonableness … that all was going to be all right; I realized how fragile and vulnerable our civilization is in the face of moral legalism.
And there is, of course, a more personal dimension to it, because in some surprising way I found my faith there. That’s where I started my first poetry book. It was definitely a touchstone in my life.
EDF: When I went to Auschwitz a couple years ago, I was looking for connection – as my paternal grandparents were murdered there – but although it was dreary, it was, as you say, very crowded. It felt like a museum, rather than a place that spoke to me. Whereas watching Son of Saul, that really resonated. It is a very hard movie to watch. But by the end, I really had more of a sense of it – what it was like to be there. A lot of the horrors that are going on are in your movie … are out of focus and in the background, because we are focused on Saul. Yet all of this is unmistakable and very impactful. Can you comment on the visual style of your movie that brings this out?
Nemes: We wanted to ground this film in simplicity, and we were trying to eliminate all temptation to contemplate, ourselves. So in the movie, there is no time for contemplation. We tried to convey, with as much simplicity and honesty as possible, the individual’s position and situation in a concentration camp. The only thing that you can represent with honesty in this hell is the human face, and that gives the reference and measure of all that is going on. We had to trust that you would be involved in shaping the mental perspective of the interior suffering taking place there. So we had to narrow our focus in order to open up the imagination of the viewer. And in this way cinema can make the film a personal journey – and also create a mental world that that is much more significant, in an ethical way, than any kind of imagery.
EDF: In some ways it seems to be more powerful in conveying the mechanization, the industrialization of the death camp that it is happening in the background; there is not a camera panning over it saying, “look at this,” there’s no musical soundtrack cueing you, it’s just there.
Nemes: It’s there. That’s, I think, what people never understood about Auschwitz. It’s already there. It does not need the devil to be there. It was constructed by humans and designed to kill human beings, and so it was extremely functional. It’s not as if it was on another planet. So we tried to root it as much as possible in reality and historical facts.
EDF: I wanted to ask for your comment on an article in the most recent issue of Film Comment (November/December 2015), in which Son of Saul was featured as the cover story, and there are two articles about your movie: one is a favorable review (by Jonathan Romney) talking about what an amazing film it is; the other is a critical opinion piece (by Stefan Grissemann), entitled Atrocity Exhibitionism: Why Son of Saul Is An Opportunistic And Highly Problematic Meta-Exploitation.
Nemes: I did not read it. I was surprised. I read the Romney, but not the other one. Well (Grissemann) is an Austrian, you know. But seriously, there’s one thing that makes me angry, and I think it’s a scandal, that when people who see this film suppose a sort of lack of honesty, or use of the style for I don’t know what reason. That is their ideological imprisonment, not mine. It’s looking at the subject without considering the film. That’s a form of dishonesty which is very typical of a certain form of pseudo-intellectuals. I’m not surprised that it’s an Austrian that is writing that. We’ve had a lot of bad things coming from Germany and Austria in connection with film. But also, from France, and a certain category of journalists who prefer Jews in the form of ashes.
EDF: My sense of it was that it had more to do with the idea that the Holocaust should be off-limits and one cannot possibly convey it.
Nemes: Let’s forget it. Let’s forget it. Let’s forget about it so that nobody will point fingers.
Röhrig: Don’t you find it racist? … Do you think that Jews suffer more than the Vietnamese; do you find that Jews suffer more than the Cambodians? I wonder if this wonderful fellow would ever question Oliver Stone’s right to make the film Platoon, which is all about the Vietnam War, or the movie The Killing Fields, which is all about the Cambodian? You know, history creates all of these terrible, terrible places and sufferings and genocides. Once it comes to Jews being murdered it suddenly becomes unrepresentable. But of course, the Cambodians, you can make a film about that, no problem. The Vietnamese you can make a film about, no problem. But don’t touch the Holocaust. It is just so incoherent intellectually. Hell is not the invention of 1944. There were plenty of other situations. Everybody’s blood is equally red. And all of a sudden in the middle of the 20th century they try to tabulize [sic] – this one thing is trouble, and you can’t go there! You can’t, it’s inappropriate – while other genocides are totally free for everyone, so you can make anything. Is there any sort of … I find it racist. Jews, you can’t go there. You can make a three-hour drama in Hollywood about anything else but when it comes to the Holocaust, these so-called intellectuals are like, “Hands off! Don’t you know? Didn’t you get the memo? You can’t go there.” I just don’t get it.
Len Weiler, a film aficionado, has written about movies over the past four years on his blog, Notes on Films. He also has been a San Francisco Bay Area attorney since 1976, specializing in family law. He reviewed Son of Saul for EDF last week.
Photos Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics unless otherwise noted.
Son of Saul is showing in 35mm by the request of the filmmaker in some locations including the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California through February 8 and the Music Box in Chicago. The Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri opens it in 35mm February 26.
For a list of current and upcoming U.S. engagements check here.