One of the most powerful moments at last year’s Cannes Film Festival took place during the press conference for Hungarian director László Nemes’s astonishing feature debut, “Son of Saul.” It’s a Holocaust drama like no other, viewing unthinkable horrors from the perspective of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando forced to guide fellow prisoners to their doom at Auschwitz. When his eyes lock with those of a boy who miraculously survived the gas chamber, albeit briefly, Saul becomes determined to give him a proper Jewish burial. At the press conference, a journalist referred to Saul’s character as “part-victim, part-killer,” and received an impassioned response from the actor. “The Sonderkommando is a 100 percent victim, sir,” Röhrig said. “They had no control over their destiny.” There is no question that this film will play a profound role in correcting that stigma. It went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and has been nominated for an Oscar in the same category.
The morning after moderating a Q&A with Nemes and Röhrig following a December preview screening of the film in Chicago, I spoke with them about the benefits of film projection, their criticism of “Schindler’s List” and how Saul himself embodies a challenge to the modern zeitgeist.
What is lost when audiences view the digital projection of a 35 mm print?
László Nemes (LN): Everything is lost. You might as well close down the movie theaters because they’re not about movies anymore. They are about television in public, and that’s the first regression in the history of cinema. It’s appalling. When you’re watching film, it is a hypnotic process—between each still image that is projected, you have darkness. Fifty percent of the experience is darkness, and the way in which the two images become movement is pure magic. Losing that on the projection side and on the acquisition side is extremely bad news for the audiences. If I can shoot on film for my first feature, and have numerous 35 mm prints distributed, then anybody can do it. It’s just a matter of fighting for what’s best for the film and for the viewers. I’m not saying that digital shouldn’t exist, I’m saying that film should exist. Digital shouldn’t kill film. It’s like saying you can only build houses in concrete from now on. It may be good for airports or high rises, but not for everything. I don’t like this narrowing of options, and in a way, digital allows filmmakers to be lazy and undisciplined. It all becomes about data capture, which is good for producers, I’m sure, but not for film creators.
What was your collaboration like with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély?
LN: When I wrote the first treatment, I had already started working with Mátyás. It was a very intricate and organic collaboration. We developed a set of rules for this film before the shoot, such as that the point of view should never go beyond the limits of human perception, and that keeping it handheld will enable us to remain within the aura of the main character. We avoided the use of any iconic imagery and wanted to work against the temptation of making beauty of out of human suffering. That decision defined our approach, and Mátyás operated the camera himself.
I love the subtlety of Géza’s performance, which is the antithesis of the sort of acting you typically see during Oscar season.
LN: Absolutely. When you’re used to overusing your facial muscles, it just becomes an inflation. When you tone it down, you preserve a sort of amplitude, so that viewers will start to look for smaller details or frequencies. You take the viewer more into the heart of the film.
Géza Röhrig (GR): László was very keen on making sure that the acting was minimalist, which very much fit into the experience of being in the middle of the camp. Since we were portraying the Sonderkommando’s traumatized state of mind, it wouldn’t have been authentic to be overly expressive. The people were operating at an extremely reduced emotional scale, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to function. They did not permit themselves a panoramic 360 degree view of their surroundings. They were always after their next duty. If they had let the surroundings sneak into their consciousness, it would’ve been so overwhelmingly tough and demanding that they would have just given up right away.
Regardless of whether or not the boy is Saul’s son, it might as well be.
GR: It makes no difference, the point is that it’s another human being. You don’t have to further qualify how they relate to each other. We are living in a world that views everything through the sense of practicality. If something can be cheaper, if something can be faster, then it leaves any other alternatives out of the question. Saul’s behavior is impractical in the sense that it doesn’t serve any immediate social end. What difference does it make to bury this boy as opposed to the other 100 who were killed on the same day? The postmodern mind believes that if something can be done but it doesn’t have a clear-cut positive effect right away, then it seems silly or old school. Why are you writing a letter by hand when you can write an e-mail? It’s faster, it’s cheaper, there are no trees being killed because of your silly need for paper. This mentality creates a very disenchanted life when everything is being judged by its practicality in very fascistic ways.
Art is utterly impractical and yet it is the most practical thing in the world because there is no society that can live without it. It does serve a very core human need. Part of the beauty of Saul’s behavior is that it flies in the face of the zeitgeist or the spirit of the age, which is all about focusing solely on taking care of ourselves and fighting for our own interests. What he’s doing is aiming for something higher. He says that life is about more than survival, and that’s beautiful. I think he is God’s last witness. The most hopeful thing about the film is that even in a situation as dark as the one depicted, there can still be people like Saul.
I grew up watching “Schindler’s List,” and though it’s ultimately a story of survival, what I found most unforgettable was its portrayal of human suffering. Do you feel that the film’s central narrative makes it easier for viewers to dismiss the historical tragedy?
LN: Yes. Although it had a tremendous impact, I think modern viewers are more ready to see the Holocaust from a different point of view. “Schindler’s List” focuses on the survivors, and the Holocaust is not about surviving. Our collective consciousness has turned the Holocaust into an abstraction. We put it on a shelf, and it remains frozen in place. For many people, the Holocaust is just a word, but for me, it’s a face, and that’s why I made the film.
GR: I’m well-aware of how “Schindler’s List” brought the Holocaust into the center of public awareness in this country, and I think it did a lot of good in terms of educating people about what happened worldwide. Having said that, it’s a Hollywood version of the Holocaust, and I’ll tell you why. In every movie, there are characters that you become emotionally invested in. Throughout this movie, and it’s a long movie, not one of the characters that you are emotionally invested in ends up dying. People are dying left and right, you just don’t know their names or their stories. All the people that you care about survive, and that I find a little extreme. If there had been, let’s say, nine characters that you related to and two die—at least then there would be a sense of loss. There is not one person that you are losing in “Schindler’s List.”
LN: At least 90 percent of the characters that the audience cared about should have died.
GR: That’s what bothers me. Spielberg takes the number of people that he introduces to the viewer and then he puts them out of harm’s way.
Save for the one girl in red…
GR: But you don’t know her name, nor do you know the boy who hides from the Nazis in that pool of excrement. You have these nameless characters that are dying for you but you have no idea who they are.
LN: The boy survives, by the way.
“Son of Saul” will be screened in 35 mm at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre starting Friday, January 29th.