When darkness overpowers light, the need for hope, in anything, becomes urgent. Few chapters in the history of mankind have witnessed such treacherous and bleak atrocities as those perpetrated during the Holocaust. Under such inconceivably inhumane circumstances, the absence of hope became commonplace. There was no spiritual comfort, only physical existence at its bare minimum. Prisoners in the camps were alive only on a physiological level; they were nothing more than shadows waiting to be swallowed by the voracious darkness of the Nazi killing machine.
Conscious of such crude reality, first-time director László Nemes decided to look at the terrifying apparatus behind the genocide from the perspective of a group of men whose experience was exponentially more harrowing than that of the average victim. The Sonderkommando was a group of Jewish prisoners chosen to dispose of bodies, clean the gas chambers, collect valuables, and aid the Nazis in the extermination of their own people. Nemes focuses on a particular man, Saul (Géza Röhrig), a fictional character created from the limited information available on this special group and the filmmaker’s artistic sensibilities. Unlike the rest of the Sonderkommando members in the film, Saul has found a purpose by which he regains a glimpse of the humanity stripped away by his monstrous captors. By adopting a young boy’s dead body as if he was his own son and battling everything around him to give him a proper burial, Saul becomes the last bastion of divinity in this nightmarish world.
“Son of Saul” is not only the best film of the year, but also the most ambitious debut in ages. Both conceptually and visually, the dynamic, yet organically contemplative vision of one man’s ordeal as he walks through the gates the hell is the work of a master auteur.
Carlos Aguilar of SydneysBuzz talked to Nemes and star Géza Röhrig about their Golden Globe-nominated and Academy Award-shortlisted masterpiece.
1. On the significance of the line “You failed the living for the dead,” which Abraham, one of the Sonderkommando men, tells Saul.
Géza Röhrig: I think that’s a key sentence in the movie. There is this certain dynamic between Saul and his surrounding. First it’s just potential, but then there is the actualizing of the conflict that they are heading towards different directions. They are on different orbits. The other men are planning to revolt and he is single-mindedly and tirelessly invested in this body that he feels he must bury. I think what’s interested in that scene is that this is a very well formed sentence and it’s told in expectation of it having an effect. Abraham, who says this to Saul, is expecting some sort of an effect because it’s a very condensed and powerful sentence. It could be in a Greek drama. It’s a very strong sentence, but apparently it falls short for Saul. He is out. He is not part of this. His inner conflict is on a different context. He is not even reacting to this sentence at all. That’s when we know the split is final. That’s what I think Abraham is really realizing. It’s incorrigible. No argument or deed can bring Saul back to the fold. I think this is the make or break moment in terms of the script. For the viewers this is when it really hits home that it’s over between these people, who are probably from the same town as they seem to be close and like they might have shared some aspects of their past with each other.
László Nemes: We almost ended up taking this sentence out of the screenplay because some people were telling me, “Oh it’s too much,” “It’s too direct,” or “It’s too on the nose.” I didn’t think so, but since this film, for the most part, kept itself from stating things in this way, this sentence is still feels like a bit of a commentary. Because of the way it was filmed and the way it’s said, I think it was good to have this sentence at this moment, but it really raises the issue of what the main character is trying to achieve and whether it can make any sense to the audience because it doesn’t make sense to the people in the Sonderkommando. It also raises the question, “Is there a possibility for anything that’s meaningful in the context of the concentration camp?”
2. On the possibility of Saul having a life after his ordeal
László Nemes: What kind of life? That’s the question. Is it possible to still have an internal life when you are in the middle of this kind of extreme situation beyond hell, beyond dehumanization, of the concentration camp? Is it still possible to have some kind of humanity?
3. On Saul’s motivations and how he perceives and deals with his circumstances
László Nemes: I think he is very instinctive. He is not reflecting. I think reflection is something that would be very hard to do in a concentration camp.
Géza Röhrig: I also think that Saul is not really presenting himself as a thinker in this movie. I don’t think anybody would mistake him for an intellectual. I think he is a smart man. His intellectual faculties are in good shape but he is not a brainy type of person. I don’t think thought process is what’s guiding in his actions. He is a person living with his guts. He feels what’s right and he does it in a wholesome way. I don’t believe he thinks this is a better way to cope or that what’s happening with him is for everybody, but he has to be true to his experience and to what happened to him. He has this boy and nobody else has this boy. If he doesn’t bury him no one is going to do it. Again, he is not looking down on or disagreeing with that the rest of the men are planning to do. The negative is more tangible from the collective towards him, “You are betraying us.”
4. On understand the horrifically unique role of the Sonderkommando within the concentration camp
László Nemes: When I read the text about the Sonderkommando members I knew there is nothing about them that shouldn’t be met with extreme empathy. These people are in the middle hell and definitely not on purpose. They are forced to assist the Nazis in the extermination process. We approached them with humanity. I always thought that these people were in the worst possible situation within the concentration camp even if they had more latitude, because this latitude just gave them more possibilities of seeing and witnessing and not being to do anything. However, they were trying to and they did because the rebellion did take place. What I did was try to recreate the experience of one human being with the limitations of one human being within the concentration camp. I think being with the Sonderkommando throughout the film gives a measure of the limitations and the despair that these people must have experienced.
5. On marrying the important thematic elements with the technical and visual concept including the choreographed background action
László Nemes: The technical challenge was secondary, first we had to define what we wanted to do and that was to make a portrait – the portrait of a man. We defined a set of rules for ourselves saying that this should be an eye-level experience constantly staying with one person and be very organic in following in this person throughout the film whatever happens. Then the fact that a lot of things were happening to him because of how his day works, because of his journey, and because of all the transgressions that he is making in the film, it meant that we had to go to places in a particular technical way, which meant a series of things such as going onto a truck or going into the water.
We needed an extreme form of cooperation between the crewmembers, but this principle was very clear-cut and simple in a sense. It was very raw. What this meant was that we had to make the camera very dynamic and mobile so it could go to places that were difficult to reach and having all this choreography around mean that the background action had to be well directed.I hired a friend of mine, who is a director himself, to direct the backgrounds. Since I had a filmmaker directing backgrounds and not an AD directing them, it meant that the background is not just background in the film. It is a living thing that interacts with the foreground and it had to be believable.
The fact that we had an immersive strategy where space and time were captains as one also meant that the crew and the cast believed it all much more. When they were shooting they could perceive what was going on as something real as opposed as if we had more cut out pieces. As an experience during shooting, that would have been more distant. We were immersive also in the way we were shooting and that also immersed the people who were making the film much more.
6. On deciding what and how much to show in order to remain truthful to the Sonderkommando’s experience
László Nemes: We wanted to be truthful to the experience of the Sonderkommando and what was going on during one day in the lives of these crematorium workers. What went on was a list of things. We didn’t show every single thing on this list because we didn’t want to do a “best of” of everything. At the same time we knew that we would want to go to certain places and that his quest would lead him to certain places. We couldn’t not go there.
The simplicity of it had to be kept without trying to add superfluous elements. What we had was the experience of the camp as we felt that it was. The experience of the camp was about limitations, lack of knowledge, and lack of predictability. You didn’t know what was going to happen in the next minute. These were elements that were at the core of the strategy and for that we had to find a filmic language to convey them. I think that the fact that editor was on set and the DP was with me fully on this adventure helped me better find the language and the steps that would make the journey possible.
7. On the writing process and creating stories instinctively
László Nemes: It was very instinctive when we wrote the film. We found a very simple story, a primitive and archaic story to deal with these matters. I think in my life I’ve been very much influenced by very primitive tales and stories. I’m very much drawn to those primitive or Biblical stories. These are stories that make sense in a universal way or on a metaphysical way. It was natural. We don’t self-analyze it because we didn’t do it while we were writing it back then. It was natural for us to tell a story with very simple elements, again, in a very instinctive way. We were not analyzing why we were making the film.
The episodes came naturally in the creative process, but you can argue that the film has an archaic structure or also archaic elements of motifs. It really questions whether or not in this total darkness there is a possibility for a journey. Is there a possibility to have a glimpse of light in the sort inner God or goodness that lives in Saul? There is no more God, there is no more law, and there is nothing else. Is there still a greater law beyond this absent law?
8. On grappling with immeasurable evil
Géza Röhrig: There were genocides before Auschwitz but somehow, to me at least, Auschwitz represents absolute evil in its purest and most direct form. This was an assault. It was a state-sponsored, full-scale genocide right in the heart of European civilization. The Germans clearly knew what they were doing. Despite that they went along and proceeded with intention and even relished. How did Auschwitz come to being? Is there any sort of civilized anything in this monstrous reality that we can show as hope or something else? It’s a very hard question.
9. On looking at the Holocaust from the German perspective
László Nemes: When I talked to Uwe Lauer, he was one of the German actors in the film who played an SS officer and who is from Frankfurt, he mentioned his experience as a child and as a young adult with the stories and the atmosphere that were communicated to him by his family, his father and mother. I think it was hard for him as well. He is between 45 and 50-years old, and I think he feels horribly about what Germany did. He is frustrated by it very much so. He feels numb and helpless. He wasn’t complaining at all, but I think it was interesting to have this kind of internal view of what it was like.
At the same time he was completely supportive of this kind of uncompromising view that we had in this film. We were not trying to please anybody. In this film you cannot say, “He is the bad guy,” and project all the bad feelings on this bad guy because this is a machine that was already in place. The sense that this machine was built by people is something that’s very difficult to accept for those who are used to this sort of post-war discourse that unconsciously makes the Holocaust more relative by saying, “OK, there was a Holocaust but also many other people were trying to resist,” and things of that nature.
10. On the devastating ethical dilemma the Sonderkommando members had to face
Géza Röhrig: By inclination I am a purist, in other words, growing up in a communist country I was very well aware of the existence of informers. At some point there were thousands and thousands of informers in the Hungarian system, never as many as in East Germany but plenty. This ethical dilemma of the charge of collaboration for the Sonderkommando has hit me really hard because I have to tell you that I have the utmost respect for the Sonderkommando members who committed suicide. I still believe there was a choice to be made but I suspend judgment. I would never say, “This was the only right thing to do.” I believe there was a terrible choice between bad and worse. It was a terrible choice. It’s easy for me to be a purist because I obviously did not have to pay with my life for it. When I started to read about their situation or what it meant to be a Sonderkommando member I was struggling with questions like, “What would I have done?” It’s good to meditate on their situation with pity and with rigor but never passing judgment because I don’t think we are in a position to say one way or the other.
11. On ambitious cinema and resisting television
László Nemes: I think we are losing the experience of having films that are ambitious in their meaning, in their scope, in their way of looking at a question, or in their innovation more and more because television is eating and killing cinema. Here I think we only wanted to make a proposition of cinema that not only gives the viewer a new experience or view of the concentration camp, but that also tries to speak about the experience of watching a film and how different at times cinema can be. I think we are also trying to make a form of resistance to television, and in this sense it was very important to have a curated crew who really helped me shape this film by always asking and pushing me in a relentless way to answer the questions even when I didn’t want to answer those questions. The cinematographer, the production designer, Géza, a lot, the editor, the screenwriter, we kind of form a little community trying to make the same film and I think that was the most rewarding part of it.
12. On the conversations “Son of Saul” sparks and how we look at the Holocaust 70 years later
Géza Röhrig: For me the conversations or the discourses that this movie sparks are very important because that way we can talk about the it and then we can talk about the subject matter of the movie, which is more important that the movie itself. I just can’t get passed that initial shock about this type of barbarism that allegedly should belong to the past, and that’s usually also what this movie gives to the viewer. This barbarism should belong to the wars of Genghis Khan. This has no place in the 20th century. Weren’t we all told this type of savagery was eclipsed by the Enlightenment and rationalism? Still, right in our face there is this humongous genocide, which again required and received help from every sector of the German society and we are talking about a sophisticated society. These are the best and brightest of Europe. What, how and what went wrong?
We lost something along the way and I think there is a need for revisionists to try to say, “This was just a byproduct,” “This is not characteristic, “ or they list the usual things to justify it like the unfair treaty against Germany, how they lost the war, inflation, the threat of Communism, etc, but even if you add all these up it still does not explain the level of cruelty that was manifested here. Many countries faced similar issues and it doesn’t mean that they went and in the most systematic, law-abiding way, try to exterminate a race from the Earth. This is really so extreme that you can’t block it out.
These conversations after the movie start with, “What now?” or “Is it over?” In what sense is our world different now? I understand the dragon got the virgin so to speak, so now it feels like its stomach is full, but I can still hear the dragon if you now what I mean by this childish metaphor. I still can hear the dragon snoring in the mountains. It’s not something that is gone. We can’t say, “Oh we fixed it.” I don’t think you can fix it.
László Nemes: We gave the dragon enough tools.
Géza Röhrig: Who knows what race or religious group will be targeted next, but the demon is among us and that’s the kind of helplessness I see on faces when share our feelings about this. This happened 70 years ago, but it’s still the same world. I don’t see any sort of guarantee or development that would make me feel better and to say, “OK guys that was really terrible but it’s over.” I don’t see the lesson learned. If just that, these conversations bring us together to really realize in a shameful way that this is how long we sank, altogether, the human family. The funny thing is, and I just read this recently, that right on the year Hitler got to power, which was 1933, the world fair was here in Chicago and the city was full of banners with slogans that said the 20th century was the century of progress. There was this really inherent optimism in the Euro-Atlantic civilization that believed things like, “Religion is a medieval thing,” “Science is taking over”, “There is individual liberty.“ Then everything darkened. Some people saw that coming. People say Nietzsche killed God by saying, “God is Dead,” but that’s not what he said. He said, “God is dead. And we have killed God.” The questions we are facing in this movie are the questions of today as well.
“Son of Saul” is represented worldwide by Films Distribution who has licensed it to date to:Canada–Métropole Films, Denmark–Camera Film A/S, Estonia-Feb 04, 2016-Must Kasi (Blac, Finland–Future Film, France–Ad Vitam, Greece–Filmtrade, Hungary– Mozinet, Italy–,Teodora Film, Japan–Fine Films, Inc, S. Korea —Beetwin F&I Inc, Spain–Avalon, Switzerland-Nov 04, 2015-Agora Films, Taiwan–Maison Motion, Thailand–Mongkol Major, Turkey–Fabula Films, U.K.–Artificial Eye, U.S.–SPC.
READ MORE: L.A. Times December 19: “Géza Röhrig finds a difficult truth in ‘Son of Saul’ and horrors of the Holocaust” by Steven Zeitchik, Géza Röhrig: We’re not living after Auschwitz. We’re living in the times of Auschwitz.”