The Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” was just nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar, and many prognosticators consider it a shoo-in to win. Directed and co-written by László Nemes, the film stars newcomer Géza Röhrig as Saul, a member of a Sonderkommando unit in a Nazi death camp — a team of Jewish prisoners who were spared death, if only briefly, to work in the crematoriums and gas chambers. In the course of his duties at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Saul finds a dead boy whom he comes to believe is his son, and tries to bury him.
Shot with a nearly square 1.33 aspect ratio — the proportions of a computer monitor — the film almost never leaves Saul’s face as he seeks to carry out his quixotic task amid ever-present death. New York-based star Röhrig and Budapest-based director Nemes sat down in Washington recently to talk about the message of the almost unbearably claustrophobic film, about which Nemes said, “We didn’t want to do the cinema thing. We wanted it to be a portrait.”
Most commentary has focused on the film’s look, but the audio, which won a prize at Cannes for sound designer Tamás Zányi, also is striking. We hear a disembodied kaleidoscope of shouting, shovels, a furnace, gunshots.
Nemes: When I went to my sound designer, I told him this is going be 50 percent sound, at least. We have a very narrow field of vision, but the sound is always there to say that there’s much more than that. We cannot identify clearly the source of the sounds, at least half of which is made up of layers of human voices, a Babel of languages. It was very important that the audience be lost, be frustrated, because the individual is lost and frustrated, within the camp.
Does this reinforce Saul’s state of mind?
Nemes: Absolutely. And our state of mind. At some point the viewer has to let go of the thinking process. It’s a different state of mind that comes after the war. With “Son of Saul,” we wanted to forget all the postwar perceptions and, let’s be frank, the deformed vision of the Holocaust. We had to go back to the here-and-now of the camps. All the mechanical noises and sounds within the film — all the metal sounds — refer to the crematorium. It’s always at work. In a way, it’s something organic. It’s a beast that’s alive.
The Holocaust film is a staple of cinema, especially in Europe. Does the success of your film suggest that parallels can — or should — be drawn between the events of the Holocaust and today? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Röhrig: We are here to promote a film about genocide that took place in the heart of Europe 70 years ago. Are we any sort of players in the presidential campaign?
Nemes: Let me just say one thing: Paratroopers are on hair-trigger alert in front of synagogues, 70 years after the destruction of the Jews.
Röhrig: I can assure you that, personally, I think and I hope that this stupidity will be struck down.
Nemes: There’s something at the heart of the film that interrogates the nature of evil within civilization, then and now.
You called Hollywood’s portrayal of the Holocaust “deformed.”
Nemes: I mean inaccurate. And not only Hollywood. It has become a genre with its own codification and value system. The Holocaust is there to raise the dramatic stakes. It’s not there to interrogate. Ninety percent of these films, they actually reassure the viewer and allow the viewer to remain at a superficial level of emotion, by making it understandable, in effect, presenting the S.S. guard’s point of view. That participates in the deformation of our perception. The Holocaust becomes an abstract thing. I tried to bring this story to the screen while immersing the viewer in an experience. Cinema has given us the illusion of the Holocaust. It’s almost like it’s on another planet.
What about a film such as “Inglourious Basterds”?
Röhrig: You know why I hate that movie? Because it basically turns Jews into Nazis. I was appalled by the film.
It reduces the Holocaust to a sporting event. Go Jews. Boo Nazis.
Röhrig: Exactly. To me, it’s not just a parochial issue about Jewish genocide. If I were a Christian, I would be compelled to view the Holocaust as the single greatest failure of Christianity since its origin. Here, you can put Trump in. And I want you to put [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad in, as well. The problem started in Syria with a cruel dictator murdering 300,00o of his own people. Trump is not the real issue, for God’s sake. The world is becoming a better place, but human beings are not becoming better people.
That sounds pretty hopeless.
Nemes: I would say that there’s hope. That’s the strongest question of the film: When there’s no more hope, do you still have the possibility for something that would allow us to remain human?
Röhrig: I would go a step further. I would say there is hope for the individual.
Not for humanity?
Röhrig: Some people are very angry at the way Saul conducts himself. They say that his actions do not serve any immediate social end. What difference does it make, in a place where there are thousands of people, children included, gassed and burned daily, to cherry-pick one, so to speak, and bury that one? But there is more to life than practicality. There are values that are worth dying for. I think that God’s last witness is Saul in this movie, because he is doing something for someone else.
Some say that funerals are for the living.
Röhrig: I understand that, but usually you bury a loved one. I would argue that it weakens the case of the movie to insist that this boy is Saul’s biological son. When people ask me, I always answer, “This was the son Saul never had.” It wasn’t for Saul, to help Saul with his grieving, to bury this boy. Animals don’t bury each other. It’s one of the basic humanitarian values, no matter what. We bury each other.
Géza, you’re not a professional actor. Can you talk about the emotional challenges of making the film?
Röhrig: To be honest, I didn’t feel that was a challenge. By the time we started filming, I had been living with this character for months, reading about the Sonderkommando camps, waking up in middle of the night. I wanted to know precisely — not their feelings or thoughts, I wasn’t interested in that — I wanted to know what they were doing. I knew they extracted gold teeth. With what? Did they use mirrors? What sort of instruments?
The camp guards in the film use dehumanizing slang to refer to their victims’ bodies, calling them “Stücke,” or “pieces.”
Röhrig: From my readings, I knew that the line of demarcation between life and death eradicates. You’re not so sure what’s alive and what’s dead. My question, as an actor, was: How on Earth can I, in 2014, get into this state of mind? I really felt that this is the sort of challenge in which even the young Robert De Niro would not have had any sort of advantage over me. The preexisting tricks simply don’t work here. I have to forge a new language. For me, the challenge was before the shooting and after the shooting. The shooting itself is almost hard to recall. I hardly remember it, to be honest.
After the filming was hard?
Röhrig: After was the worst. I hope you don’t find this perverse, but I kind of missed Saul. I’ve tried to think why. There is one thing that was very attractive about the camps, and that is that all of the unessential factors in human life — the look, the wealth, the connection — none of that mattered. All that mattered is who you are and what your character is made out of. I remember standing in a line in a pizza shop in New York after the movie, and someone dropped a pizza, and the pizza did not drop on the side of the cheese. And they still threw it away. I was like, “Give it to me!” Please understand me: My hunger was more than just a physical hunger. I was still carrying Saul. I would describe it as a melancholy.
Do you still ever feel that way?
Röhrig: I do feel it. And I don’t ever want to let it go, entirely.
Son of Saul (R, 107 minutes). At area theaters. In Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, Russian and German with subtitles.