As the stunning Holocaust film “Son of Saul” inches closer to awards glory, director László Nemes is opening up about the genre-defying decisions he made for his directorial debut.
“Saul,” Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, ignited Cannes this year claiming Grand Prize and earning wide praise for its narrative device: a nearly two-hour close up on the face of star Géza Röhrig, while the horrors of a concentration camp unfold around him, out of focus.
“I wanted to make this portrait of a man over a limited amount of time, over a day and a half, in hell,” Nemes told the crowd at a Q&A for TheWrap’s Award Screening Series, held at the Landmark Theaters in Los Angeles.
Title character Saul (Röhrig) is part of his camp’s Sonderkommando, a group of jews recruited to help the Nazis in their routine executions — be it by chemicals, fire or other atrocities that take place in the edges of Nemes’ frame.
The 38-year-old has been reflecting on the grave experiences of the camps for a long time.
“It’s always been very visceral with me. And for the first time, I read the so-called ‘Scrolls of Auschwitz,’ the writings of the members of the Sonderkommando, ten years ago, and I had this feeling that I was projected into the middle of the extermination,” Nemes said. “I always imagined how it was for my great-great-grandfather just to be there, and to be taken to this building where he would be murdered.
The big question, Nemes said, was translating that to a cinematic experience.
“I really thought that if we narrowed the field of vision, we’d rely on the viewer to have an intuition of what’s going on. The infinity of the human suffering taking place instead of opening up and establishing and telling the audience everything. I said to myself, ‘There’s only one thing you can represent with honesty. It’s a human face,’” he said.
Röhrig prepared with “a lot of reading and understood it would be my face that would be the measure of all things in this movie. These people are traumatized, they were in this comatose, robotic, ghost-like state of mind.
At the same time, Röhrig admits, “I couldn’t be boring. It’s a 107-minute movie … I had to compensate the monotony of my face with some sort of intensity. A persistence.”
That persistence comes in the form of a proper burial for a young boy Saul believes to be his son. He discovers the body in a gas chamber and sets out to find a Rabbi for formal prayer, all under the watchful antagonism of Nazi guards and his fellow Sonderkommando planning a revolt.
“I wanted everybody not to project their present set of emotions onto their parts and find a different frequency of emotion,” said Nemes. “It’s not the usual. These emotions come after the war, so we had to find a logic that’s really the here-and-now of the extermination.”
“Son of Saul,” from Sony Pictures Classics, is currently in limited release.