In Son of Saul, the titular Saul (Géza Röhrig) is imprisoned within Auschwitz, but is allowed to survive — at least for the time being and under terrible circumstances. Saul and many of his fellow Jewish prisoners are repurposed as the “Sonderkommandos,” work units within the Nazi death camps that assist in the disposal of gas chamber victims. In the film, Saul becomes convinced that one of these victims is his son, and Saul endeavours to bury him against all odds.
The film has screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix, and most recently, the Toronto International Film Festival.
Cineplex talked to director László Nemes and Géza Röhrig at TIFF about their unflinching film, Son of Saul; Sonderkommandos, and the pair’s contribution to the history of the Holocaust’s depiction on film.
CINEPLEX: What incited you to tackle the subject of Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz?
László Nemes: Because I think there was no honest depiction of the extermination camps in movies. I think that there was — in the post-WWII period there has been a collective effort to reassure the viewers about what it was in tales of survival, and tales of exception. We were not interested in that. We wanted to go at the very heart of it, and to be in the middle of the extermination process. With that, we’d tell a very archaic story, in which there was a quest that hopefully makes sense to the viewer. So that’s why I wanted to make the film.
And also Sonderkommando commanders are not really well known — and their role in the camps — so it was an incredible encounter with the writings of the Sonderkommando members that very few people know about. These are writings that they made in secret while they were working in the crematorium. They put them through the ground before the rebellion, so it was an incredible insight into what the horror of the machine must’ve been.
CINEPLEX: Other Holocaust films typify more of a good vs. evil kind of scenario. Son of Saul is obviously more in a moral gray area. How did you approach morality in the film?
LN: We knew that by restricting the scope of what we want to say and want to show, and by relying on the imagination of the viewer — not showing the viewer everything — we would stick to the experience of one human being. It would make much more sense to the viewer than telling and seeing and showing too much. So, by doing that — by restraining — you actually use the imagination as a medium, and the viewer projects personal things, personal experience and thought on this. Saying “less is more” goes against the usual way of the big thing, the Holocaust. You show more, and in fact you reduce the scope of it. Morality only is in this film, you shouldn’t reduce the scope of it.
Géza Röhrig: I think it’s a level deeper of confronting the Holocaust. When you see how did the human race — that’s so proud of its civilization, its progress. This is the 20th Century, and right in Germany, which isn’t some sort of tribal amazon. This is the highest European culture, the land that produced philosophy, music, literature and all that. So how did we all get there? We are in the same boat. We are all humans, all coming from the same human family. So how did we get here? I think this very prime knee-jerk reaction of — This could not have taken place without the bystanders, without the assistance of the masses. How can we sink so low? I wouldn’t even go to like even separate victims at this point. I would just ask in a very general, universal way: what went wrong and when? Because it didn’t begin in Auschwitz. It was constant steps leading up to that. I’m not saying politically, but throughout the centuries, this started way earlier.
In any case, what was your question? [Laughs]
CINEPLEX: Can you talk me through your camera choices in limiting the film’s perspective to Saul?
LN: This had to be a very narrow focus — because of what we said earlier — and this restriction allowed us to communicate the visceral impression of the camp. This narrowness was relying on a very limited aspect ratio. We hesitated between widescreen, and 1.33:1, and finally chose 1.33:1 because widescreen would have given too much of the background and would have made a spectacle, and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted very limited information to reach the viewer, and rely on off-stage to constantly be there and be felt.
We shot film because film is the most — Well, we do believe in film as opposed to digital, but in this film specifically you know its about the physical aspect of it. Film is more. It’s a chemical process, and the projection touching the viewer much more than on a TV screen. We felt there had to be a sort of physical link between the viewer and the film itself. So we wanted to create that link. We also used handheld. It has to be close to the character all the time, but in a very human manner — as a companion to the main character. Handheld and basically one lens throughout the film; It’s a 40mm lens. We are very close to him and very simple in our design of the shots. Even if there were complicated shots it’s carried out in a simple manner. There’s no useless, superfluous elements in the shot.
GR: There is only 80 cuts in the movie as opposed to the general 200-300. We didn’t want to let the viewer go. We wanted then keeping on with him. The less interruption, the better. It’s basically one man, and half a day of that one man.
LN: And it gives it space and time — a sense of space and time to the viewer much more than any other strategy.
CINEPLEX: Saul’s constantly man-handled during the film by everyone — by prisoners, by Nazis. Was physicality and body language important for you when developing the character?
GR: I heard from the casting director that one of their ways of finding actors for this movie was asking thems the question “Do we believe this guy would have survived being a Sonderkommando?” They were obviously not looking for an over-sophisticated intellectual — someone who is fragile or frail — in order to become a Sonderkommando by the selection process. The only ones who made it into this brigade are the ones who were somewhat physical because again this is a heavy duty job. It wasn’t just 8 hours. This was longer hours — a day shift, night shift. So it had a tremendous physical element for them. And also of course for me. What we hoped for was that the experience we created for the moviegoers is also somewhat physical in its nature.
We were not aiming for crying. We didn’t want to produce catharsis because we thought it was a form of relief. We wanted the people to get up and be punched in the stomach, and to be puzzled, like we went through a journey that had a height, and then they take us down from the mountain. It is this whole philosophy that generally Hollywood trades for optimism, so it takes you through some pain but at the end there is some sort of liberation, feel-good. So we didn’t want that. We wanted a very minimalist or reduced type of movie that really creates an experience on the one hand that is physical.
LN: What was important was that it seemed as though maybe Saul is pushed around during the movie, being like a puppet. He’s not a hero. We didn’t want to have a hero. We wanted an ordinary man with his weaknesses, but this man should also carry a quest that is meaningful — to only him and hopefully to the viewer — and in that we find a way of giving hope.
GR: Actually, he had a tremendous pressure on him to give up with the craziness with the son and just fit in. So yes, in the exterior he looks like someone, a guy who is punched from all sides, but he had a tremendous personal integrity to keep on with his decision against all odds.
CINEPLEX: You’ve mentioned that when the audience leaves the theatre you want them to have experienced this propelled motion and in the end you’ve been kicked in the gut because you’ve experienced something uncompromising. What would you like them to remember about the film in particular, aside from the experience of watching it?
GR: I really hope people who see Son of Saul will remember it as a movie that stands out against this escapist, commercial storytelling of novelizing history, and to have that unique or singular feeling, which can only be compared to when you meet somebody and you just know that there is so much more in this somebody and you know you want to meet him or her again. If you are able to raise the consciousness of how far humanity can go, and if you’re able to raise curiosity of not just history, but more about human behaviour, psyche, what can be done, what was the secret of Saul that he was able to do this? We did want to perplex — for the viewer to leave with lots of questions.
LN: And also with something uplifting, what is rewarding, which is not the usual way of uplifting the audience, but a hold for a moral survival.
GR: There is one level that is optimism that’s like, “Yeah, he biologically survived. Yay!” but there’s another testimony that I think is hopeful — that it’s, yes, he did not survive, but look what he did. He behaved really quintessentially differently than all the others around him. It was absolutely forbidden, under the threat of death, to bury somebody — “We don’t bury here.” — and he went against the system.
He did what he thought was his obligation because humans do bury each other and animals don’t. That self-awareness — that I am a human and I’m not giving up on that standard, that I was created by the image of God, and I am a human and no matter what I’m going to bury this child. So in that way he is a witness of a higher truth that is not exposed to time and space. This is it. We are humans and we are obliged to bury each other and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and help the poor. That’s who we really are. He doesn’t let this self of him to be washed away because of accidental reality, no matter how powerful that is or what the sacrifice he has to pay for that. And that’s hope.