Tuesday, December 15, 2015

SON OF SAUL (SAUL FIA, 2015)—The Evening Class Interview With László Nemes & Géza Röhrig

Photo: Andrea Chase
Winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize, as well as the FIPRESCI Prize, the François Chalais Award, and the Vulcain Prize for technical artistry, as well as being Hungary's Official Selection for the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film, László Nemes's feature debut Son of Saul (Saul Fia, 2015) recounts the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, as Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando—the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large-scale extermination—is forced to burn the corpses of his own people, but finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul—intensely embodied in a riveting performance by poet Géza Röhrig (in his feature acting debut)—decides to carry out an impossible task: save the child's body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner's Kaddish, and offer the boy a proper burial.

At Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has rounded up the reviews from both Cannes and the New York Film Festival. Further, the current issue of Film Comment offers commentary on the film, both pro (Jonathan Romney) and con (Stefan Grisseman). Son of Saul was also awarded Best Foreign Film by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

László Nemes was born in 1977 in Budapest, Hungary. After studying History, International Relations and Screenwriting in Paris, he started working as an assistant director in France and Hungary on short and feature films. For two years, he worked as Béla Tarr's assistant and subsequently studied film directing in New York.

Géza Röhrig was born on May 11, 1967, in Budapest, Hungary. After a visit to Auschwitz during a study tour in Poland, he decided to become a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn. He graduated from the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest with a degree in filmmaking. He has lived in New York City since 2000 and has published many collections of poetry, including two on the theme of the Shoah.

Son of Saul opens in New York on December 18, and opens in San Francisco on January 15, 2016.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: An amazingly assured first feature!

László Nemes: Thank you.

Guillén: Can you speak a bit about the genesis of the project and what motivated you to take such a brave, bold first step?

Nemes: It started when I first read Mark Ber's The Scrolls of Auschwitz, the writings of the Sonderkommando members of the cerematoria in Auschwitz. Some of these journals were found after the war. They transported me, as a reader, into the here and now of the extermination. I wanted to find a way in cinematic terms to communicate with today's audience; to give them an intuition of the individual experience within the camp, and not from without, not from an external point of view. I felt the external points of view were so widely accepted as the position to view the Holocaust. So-called Holocaust cinema has been effective with the survivor's point of view, the exceptional point of view, the angle that you can never have as the victim from within, but always giving the audience a positive meaning from the outside. I really wanted to change that and that's why I made this film.

Guillén: I presume that you knew that approach would be controversial?

Nemes: In what way?

Guillén: It has polarized the critical audience….

Nemes: I don't think it has polarized the critical audience. When you have 85%-90% of critics saying it's an important film, I don't think you can say it has polarized the critics. Although certainly some people—particularly the French—found the film systematic. They said you cannot think while you are watching the film. But I don't think they understand that that's exactly why I did it. When you're immersed in the situation you say something about the individual experience in the camp. Thinking comes after the war. In cinema, we're so used to the external point of view, which offers the best angle to be in a comfortable position as a viewer. But the Holocaust is not a comfortable position and I wanted to say something about the nature of it. The critics who are saying Son of Saul is polarizing are not really thinking about the film, but are talking about the subject of the film.

Guillén: Deciding to focus on an individual perspective of the death camps, this is where the casting of Géza Röhrig as the individual became absolutely essential. Did you have him in mind from the beginning?

Nemes: No.

Guillén: How did you become involved in this project, Geza? Why did you decide to say yes to this project?

Géza Röhrig: I came in at quite a late stage. The first time that I read the script was the sixth version of the script—there were only seven versions altogether—but, I was convinced by the script. I had a lot of confidence in this movie.

Guillén: I have to say yours is one of the finest performances I've seen this year for being impeccably restrained, which leads to another question I wanted to ask. There's a built-in dialectic to the whole project, actually a couple of them, but the first is what I think of as almost a Dionysian frenzy, in the sense that one of the icons for Dionysos is the mask. A mask conceals as much as it reveals. It's, in fact, in the act of concealing that it reveals. I felt this with the film's commitment to close-ups on your face. Your face is amazing. You're not really emotive, one could mistakenly think you're not even expressive, and yet you're very expressive. Can you speak at all to the craft involved in creating this mask that was concealing and revealing at the same time?

Röhrig: That was the challenge of the character. When you have a movie that is made up entirely of close-ups where the viewer is going to be watching your face for 107 minutes from 30 inches, then the face—being the most expressive part of you—has to manage the issue of the audience not becoming bored with you. One of the "tricks" is that you have to remain enigmatic. You can't reveal too much. On the other hand, if you're giving the viewer too little, that gives them another reason to be bored.

I had to find a balance through using this triangle of the eyes and the lips and all these tiny little muscles engaged in gazing for such a long time, to give the viewer enough so that they wouldn't starve but not give too much so that they lose their appetite. That was the existential challenge. This was not a performance where I could show an emotional spectrum. I had very few lines. The scope was narrowed. My understanding was that—if I was in it—then the viewer would be in it.

Often times, people have asked me if I worked out the past history of Saul, and I did not. I felt that—if there were no secrets about him—to me, then the viewers would pick up on that. It's not that I was consciously hiding aspects of Saul's psyche or personality, but I did consciously shut in and stay away from getting into, building up, and coloring his figure a little too much. I, myself, had to be curious about him.

Guillén: As I was watching your performance, I was reminded of the well-worn adage that cinema is thought. Yours was one of the most thoughtful performances I've seen in some time, where I was engaged in thought with what I was imagining were your character's thoughts.

Röhrig: Adding to that just a bit, given the circumstances and conditions that Saul and his other Sonderkommando members were living under, this—what you call "thought"—is more a state of mind or mode of being. He was, in a sense, one thought—that was the issue—and that one thought was done with his whole being. His was an extreme reality, it was not a normative reality, and to do what he did mentally, and even physically, pushed him into an extreme, out of the ordinary, sphere. I agree with you that there was thought, but it wasn't necessary cognitive.

Guillén: The other dialectic built into the film, which fascinated me, was—as you were saying, László—the tension between an immersive, individual experience that's at the same time, perhaps necessarily, detached. It was especially pronounced technically, I think—along with Geza's performance—but achieved technically in the tension between sound and image; that is to say, between Mátyás Erdély's cinematography and Tamás Zányi's sound design. The image was focused on Saul with events in the background being a bit out-of-focus, so that the viewer couldn't really see what was going on, though the sound confirmed and emphasized what was going on, such that the viewer could imagine with precision and clarity the horrors that were going on. Can you speak to that decision to approach the events in the camp that way?

Nemes: It had to be an immersive experience and, in that, sound is very important. More and more, cinema is used to illustrate what you can see, whereby it loses its muscle, and becomes a means to shock the audience for whatever reason. It aligns with the cinema of attractions. We wanted to use sound to suggest much more than the image. In Son of Saul, the images are restricted but the sound always refers to something that's much larger. It's very important in building a mental perspective within the viewer of the suffering that's taking place, and the scope of what's in place, of the machinery of death that's functioning. The sound was a very important factor and it took a long time to design it, which was an intuitive process between me and my sound designer in how we made it happen. It was almost like composing a piece of music. We never used the same sounds. As we followed our main character, the sounds were always different and were always morphing into something else. The soundscape of Son of Saul is an organic world—the crematorium is almost like a living thing—and it took a tremendous amount of time for us to add all those layers of human voices. We have eight languages in the film that had to represent the Babel of languages taking place in Auschwitz that made it difficult for the individual to exist. The sound is also there to frustrate, you know? For the individual it was frustrating to have all these sounds with no key to unlock them. The sound participated in the sense of being lost.

Guillén: And sound slices into the body in the way an image cannot.

Nemes: Yes, that's true.

Guillén: Where I felt this the most was in the scene at the pit, which was horrifying in its random confusion. My final question, I have to inquire after the motivating impulse of the child and the visual and narrative rhyme between Saul believing the young boy was his son, which was held in abeyance….

Röhrig: But not his biological son.

Nemes: [To Röhrig] Why not?

Röhrig: What I mean is that it's ambiguous.

Guillén: That's right. That's how I mean it. Purposely ambiguous, even beautifully ambiguous, and equally ambiguous when he spots the young boy, the other child, just before he's executed. I know it's unfair to ask you to unpack that rhyme, but I'm genuinely intrigued. Especially as it resulted in Saul's final smile, which was possibly the most emotive moment of your performance. Can you speak to me about that smile?

Röhrig: I think there were two emotive moments. The first was when the boy was being killed. Saul's face is emphathetic at the moment the Nazi doctor is suffocating him; but, you're right about the smile. To me, Saul was not smiling at the Polish boy. That's directorial, and I understand it follows from the situation as it was being edited, but when I composed that smile I was basically smiling out of fulfillment. As Saul, I had saved my boy from the flames. I had done what I could. I had put whatever I had into the effort and the outcome was obviously never in my hands entirely. I was smiling because that effort was my life and I was possibly the happiest person there because I had a purpose that singled me out—just as the boy was singled out by surviving the gas chamber—and that singularity, somehow, was transmitted into me. Again, when I was smiling I wasn't smiling as some sort of message for the Polish boy to see my smile, but it was an internal smile, which would have happened even if there were no boy whatsoever. It was a smile that expressed in a couple of seconds a sense that my life was over. The Kabbalah speaks about death as being a kiss for the righteous. Saul's smile basically says that his life is complete and that—whatever is coming—is not so much a completion. He has had a full life.

Guillén: From your side of the lens, László, were you directing him that way? Was that the direction you were going?

Nemes: What do you mean exactly?

Guillén: Did you know he was going to smile like that?

Nemes: It was in the screenplay.

Röhrig: I was instructed to smile. I'm just saying why I smiled.

[At this juncture László Nemes expressed his discomfort talking about Saul's final smile, especially for readers who have not seen the film, and would only respond further off the record.]