László Nemes and Géza Röhrig on Connecting with History in ‘Son of Saul’
In examining the role of the sonderkommando in German concentration camps, filmmaker László Nemes was preparing to enter his debut film Son of Saul into a long line of auteur-driven projects made in response to one of history’s most devastating instances of genocide. Drawing influence from Elem Klimov’s final film Come and See as well as the horrifying documentary Shoah, Nemes conceived of a project that would acknowledge the horrors of camps like Auschwitz without placing a direct focus on the actions themselves. His movie Son of Saul utilizes a shallow depth of field to obscure the frame around its central figure, the sonderkommando Saul, allowing the intricate sound design and some clever suggestive filmmaking to fill the visual gaps.
“When I finished [reading] the script I thought that finally this was a movie that was going to do it right,” explained Son of Saul’s lead actor Géza Röhrig. “Two out of three Jews were murdered in Europe during the Holocaust and all the movies I saw were talking about the lucky third.”
Son of Saul is an often-brave depiction of the ill-fated lives of the sonderkommando, Jews forced to work in the Nazi death camps. In this interview with the movie’s filmmaker László Nemes as well as its star Géza Röhrig from before Son of Saul picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the pair talked to Way Too Indie about the movie’s intimate perspective, the challenges of minimalist filmmaking and the responsibility they felt in portraying these events.
The Holocaust and World War II have been extensively covered in films and other documents, what compelled you to explore that territory for Son of Saul?
László: I think it hasn’t been explored. Filmmakers [have] established, over the decades since the war, a sort of codification of the Holocaust film as a frozen genre in and of itself. I was more interested in making a portrait of one man, one individual, to convey something about the human experience within the camp. Within the extermination machine. With all the limitations and lack of knowledge and frenzy that were at the heart of this experience.
I think these aspects were forgotten by films. I wanted to go back to the experience I had by reading certain text such as the scrolls of Auschwitz and the writings by the sonderkommando. Texts that were written during the extermination process, within the crematorium. These were texts that gave us, as readers, the [feeling] of being there. And it was this feeling of being there that was not communicated in cinema, I think.
How early on did you develop the idea of this very experiential, immersive type of presentation?
László: It wasn’t there at the very beginning. It took me years to develop the project and to discuss it with my cinematographer [Mátyás Erdély]. I think the short films [we made together] were a way to devise a directorial strategy to immerse the viewer. But it took years and several steps to design it.
So many other Holocaust films indulge the violent aspects of that war in a way that lessens the impact of that violence.
László: I agree.
Your film does a remarkable job of putting the viewer in that moment without lessening that experience.
László: Yes! Convention is an invention. My approach is that you cannot truly put your finger on the very clearly horrible aspect of the extermination. It has to be in its essence. I think cinema can do it by giving certain limitations to frenzy of this experience. [Violence] can be diffusing in a way and not as clear-cut as cinema wants to make us believe.
You strip down the elements, in a way.
László: We went against that. We went against those effects. It was very conscious.
Géza, as an actor, how does having less going on around you in the frame impact your performance?
Géza: First I had to fall in love with the project. I believed in this movie because I felt this was going to be credible and authentic. I saw that the crew, Laszlo and the cinematographer, basically everybody involved took it extremely personally. They were very focused. So I wasn’t alone in this.
On the other hand, as an actor, it presented a singular challenge because actors imitate. Actors simulate. But with such a distance from our everyday world and the world of Auschwitz, how do you bridge this existential gap? I did lots of reading. That was my primary source. Every single account I could read. Then I had to realize that the less-is-more concept that the movie was applying is true visually, as well.
There’s this very interesting paradox in the movie that, “you only show my face,” so to speak, but the human face is the place where the world and a person meets. That’s why it’s so expressive. On the one hand, it’s a little but on the other hand, it’s the most. It’s huge because there are so many tiny muscles around the eyes and lips that every single thing is on surface. The key for that is just to put myself there and sustain the right state of being. I had to not just understand intellectually but really grasp it with my whole being. What did it take for these people? How is it to live without feeling? I don’t live like that generally so I had to get to that state of being.
Is it a challenge to perform without a traditional, melodramatic, over-the-top moment?
Géza: No, first of all, László was very strict to kill any sort of theatricality from my acting. I also understood the concept that when people are in a theater they have to be visible and effective to the 30th row, or balcony. This is film. We have a camera that is 20-30 inches from my face. There is no room for routine or technique. I just had to be in the moment as intensely as I could.
How do you work on striking that balance between the intimacy of those moments and the sweeping nature of this story, which takes place in a busy concentration camp with tons and tons of extras at times, without allowing the intimate style to overwhelm the experience?
László: Well you just asked how to direct a film [Laughs]. That’s something that’s challenging, especially for a first-time filmmaker. You have your material but once you’re on set how do you make it happen? I don’t really have a clear answer but I think for this film it was especially frightening. But at the same time we were very prepared and had time for preparation.
I wanted to have a director instructing everybody on set but I knew I couldn’t instruct all the extras, so I had a director friend—who was hired by the production—and he directed all the background action. In this film, the background sometimes becomes the foreground. We are in this very immersed situation so the central action couldn’t be separated from the rest [of the film]. I think it’s how we worked together as a team that made it believable. That was the most challenging [element].
One of the ways it’s so believable is the textured sound design. I’ve read you spent 5 months in post-production specifically working on the sound design, but how much went into the process in pre-production and how much did you work with that along the way?
László: We knew beforehand it would be a long ride. I consulted with the sound designer throughout pre-production and production, but with sound we worked on it in a very organic way. A lot of indications were there [in the script stage] and we certainly worked using a lot of production sound but the more we worked on it, the more it became evident that we needed more human voices. So we had to go and record more human voices in different languages so this kind of babel of languages is part of the experience and part of the film.
What’s the sense of responsibility you feel when you tell a story with such serious, resonate subject matter?
Géza: For László and for myself too, the Holocaust is an inter-generational term. It’s not something that the second or even the third [generation] is learning from the books. We are traumatized by this experience whether or not we’ve experienced it directly ourselves. It’s almost like having a phantom pain in a limb that wasn’t amputated from us but our grandfathers, but still the pain is real.
I feel that this is part of the legacy of modernity—it’s an extremely important thing to speak about, especially the sonderkommando—because there’s a new brand of killers that appeared here in history. People always killed each other, but they kind of took responsibility for it. Here in the middle of the 20th century there is this new type of, “I just obeyed orders, I did nothing wrong.”
There is this distance. The executioners are removed both physically and psychologically from the outcome of their actions. Now the sonderkommando became a software because the killing is going on with drones and pilotless bombers. There is no human sonderkommando anymore and the distance between the murderers who are sitting somewhere underground with a mouse they click and another continent that is being bombed, they are not feeling any sort of consequence just like the Nazis did not face the screaming or the stench of the gas chamber. They left the dirty work for the sonderkommando.
I think it’s an extreme challenge in terms of going into the 21st century. If we are to avoid anything [like the Holocaust] happening again, we have to first recognize we haven’t turned the page yet. Still, the same evil manifests in this world. You can list the alarming frequency of genocides after the Holocaust. The U.N. is consistently incapable to invoke its own genocide convention of 1948. We are still living in the times of Auschwitz. Basically, the driving force behind this movie, is an appeal to vigilance. An appeal to constant reflection.
László: I think we have a responsibility to talk to our world. The new generations are forgetting about the possibility of evil within civilization. The most advanced civilization of Europe, in its peak, killed the entire Jewish population of Europe. So I think it’s true that we have to be conscious of this possibility within humanity. People consider history as a history book. Like history through postcards. But history doesn’t necessarily announce itself, it might just be the present.