Mar 28, 2017
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Interview Son of Saul: Foriegn Oscar Winners
by Doniphan Blair
'Son of Saul''s director László Nemes (left) and lead Géza Röhrig kick it at SF's Mark Hopkins Hotel, as much as one can when discussing Holocaust all day,. photo: D. Blair
"SON OF SAUL" DROPPED LIKE A BOMB
into the Cannes Festival last May, where it took the Grand Prix (second after the Palme d'Or), and then theaters national-wide in January, where it is currently well-attended.
By freshman feature-maker László Nemes and developed over ten years, "
Son of Saul
" is a striking new view, both in style and content, of what has come to be known as the Holocaust film or Shoah cinema.
Born in Budapest, in 1977, Nemes immigrated to France as a teen with his mother, after his parents divorced. Denied entrance to film school there, he attended the Institut d'Études Politiques while working on his own and other people’s short films.
Moving back to Budapest in 2003, he met the experienced cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and masterful sound designer Tamás Zányi and they soon produced the jewel-like, 15 minute AND single take “With a Little Patience” (2007), which served as a detailed template for “Son of Saul”, see film
Even though the short focuses on, even humanizes, the perpetrators of the Holocaust, making it a completely different story from “Son of Saul”, in it Nemes workshopped and perfected much of what he elevated to such finesse in the feature.
A mercurial spirit, Nemes quit the New York University film program he was attending to after nine months—“Boring!” he exclaimed in his penchant for short, provocative summaries. Fortunately, he had already met both his co-writer, the French Clara Royer, and Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian poet and actor who was living in the “Jewish ghetto” of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and became his “Son of Saul” star.
Nemes and Röhrig questioned each other as well as the interviewer in the course of the 25 minute, rapid interview. photo: D. Blair
Upon return to Budapest, Nemes contacted the well-known Hungarian director Béla Tarr, and become his assistant for two years, working mostly on “The Man from London”, which was released in 2007.
Meanwhile, “With a Little Patience” showed that year at the Venice International Film Festival and was nominated, the following year, at the European Film Awards. Along with the shorts “The Counterpart” (2008) and “The Gentleman Takes His Leave” (2010), Nemes’s three shorts eventually won over 30 awards at film festivals world-wide.
An almost entirely Hungarian production, “Son of Saul” (2015) stars Röhrig, whose only other IMDb credit is a Hungarian television show from 1989, has music by the versatile László Melis, who has a lot of Hungarian credits, and was lensed by Erdély, who has English and American features and TV to his credit.
Surprisingly for a first film, it began to get big buzz and was invited to Cannes, in May of 2015, where it took home both the Grand Prix and the international critics association’s FIPRESCI award. Shortly thereafter, it became Hungary's submission to the Oscars as well as a critical darling and an international art house hit.
A student and maker of Holocaust films myself, I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to meet with Nemes and Röhrig, facilitated by Karen Larson, if for only 25 minutes. We talked very fast, often interrupting each other.
Röhrig, at the end of 'Son of Saul', in Nemes's trademark, shallow focus shot. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
Blair doesn’t sound like a Jewish name.
When your mother is Jewish, it doesn’t matter who your father is, no? Especially when she was in Auschwitz for three weeks in 1944.
Nemes: She survived… that is good.
Lodz had a high rate of survival because of Chaim Rumkowski, a very corrupt Judenrat [Jewish ghetto administration] guy, who was able to negotiate, manipulate—a very interesting character, worthy of a film.
Röhrig: Did he commit suicide?
No, that was the Judenrat leader from—
Adam Czerniaków. When they ordered him to deport 20,000 Jews, he committed suicide.
Rumkowski was rumored to be a pederast. The Jews killed him when he got to Auschwitz for the bad stuff he did. But my mother owes her life to him because he kept the Lodz Ghetto open ‘til August, 1944. By the time she got to Auschwitz, things were falling apart, they needed laborers.
Nemes: Are you familiar with the Lodz ghetto pictures in color?
Nemes: There are 300 pictures or more, we used them for this film.
Nemes: Yes, they were on my desk.
Chaim Rumkowski, circa 1941, leader of the Lodz Ghetto, the longest surviving ghetto in Europe due to his nefarious efforts. photo: courtesy the Holocaust Museum
The film looks fabulous. I just looked at ‘With a Little Patience’ [2007, a short about a non-inmate secretary working at a concentration camp]. I loved it. It was amazing how you were so fully conceived back then.
Nemes: Thanks. Same cinematographer, sound designer and production designer.
But it was your concept to start on the out-of-focus forest—
Nemes: Of course! Everything was my concept.
What generated some of those ideas?
Nemes: Do you really want to talk about the first film?
It seems like [the two films share] the same ideas, opening shot emerging from the forest—
Nemes: It’s a different approach for the short film. It is about someone who works in
an office. For that I came across this picture, the portrait of a young woman, a kapo in one of the camps.
I wanted to make a ten-minute shot on a human face, on a woman who works not as a kapo but an office clerk while things are going on outside. It is a very different movie for that reason. But, at the same time, it is also linked because we made a portrait of one individual.
Also, you start in the forest, out-of-focus and slowly reveal what is happening.
Isn’t [‘With a Little Patience’] sort of a comment on [Hannah] Arendt’s ‘banality of evil?’ The worker—
Nemes: Might be… yeah.
Was there a generating moment, where you had to make this project, do this new interpretation of the Holocaust?
Children in the Lodz Ghetto, from the newly discovered color photos of Lodz. photo: Holocaust Museum
Nemes: Interpretation… I don’t know if that is the right word.
The Holocaust has never been felt through the individual situation. It has been described from a safe distance, to reassure the viewers and to talk about stories of survival. But the Holocaust is not about survival—the exception. The Holocaust is about death!
I wanted to communicate directly to the audience this sense of being lost. I think it is at the heart of the human experience in the concentration camp. It is something that has never been communicated.
Forget the post-war years and go back into the heart of it. Accept that it is almost a physical process, not an intellectual process. Forget the intellectual postwar interpretations. Go back into the middle of it—that is something that has been missing.
The technique you use is sort of post-modernist—
Nemes: I refute post-modernist! Why do you call it that?
The out-of-focus look and the focus on the individual and the stuff happening around the sides of the frame, it creates a tension between technique and story.
Nemes: It is very humanistic. It is pre-industrial, in a way.
[Up until now] the Holocaust film for me is a little like an attempt by a renaissance painter to represent all sorts of episodes, to have a global view. You have a sense of the perspective.
Then, suddenly, you have the portrait of one individual and everything else is the background. The face, the face gives the reference. That is what I wanted to make. To make sure the human becomes the absolute reference [point]. I think it is the human face that we have been forgetting about.
There is also a glancing away in the story. [Saul] doesn’t really get involved in the rebellion—he loses the explosives for the rebellion. He is only focused on his one sacred task. That separates him even from the rebels—
It is a journey for the audience. The audience has to decide whether the story of the main character makes sense. We reinforced the importance of this choice. We put against the story of the main character the story of the Sonderkommando [the inmates who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria].
This story is about the possibility for revolt [and] the quest of the main character [to bury his son according to Jewish law], things that are morally understandable. That is the question to the audience. I am trying to raise the stakes for this decision on the part of the audience.
Director Nemes and co-writer Clara Royer enjoying both the Cannes harbor and their new-found celeb status. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
It speaks to me in terms of my own mother’s life. She was a young woman who didn’t do any uprising and I passed her by, at first, in my Holocaust research. But I realized she experienced very human events that were quite fantastic, like a flirtation with a German soldier.
At the very end of your film, there is a beautiful vision of the boy and then [Saul] smiles. It shows that political is OK but the personal—having a little epiphany before you die—is fantastic.
Nemes: It is different to be in the armchair after the war and to be in the middle of these events. We have put so much blame on the victims instead of the perpetrators; Hannah Arendt putting blame on the Sonderkommandos, so on and so forth.
So that is something that made me angry. The moral responsibility will always lie with the perpetrators. That is what I wanted to reaffirm with this film.
Röhrig: Yeah, the very title of Hannah Arendt’s book boils my blood [‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, 1963].
I understand the banality of the evildoers but there is NO banality of evil. Evil is not banal at all! There is nothing banal in an evil, which cost so many lives.
Nemes: [Arendt] did like some Nazis.
Röhrig: That is another thing.
She was friends with Martin Heidigger.
Röhrig: She was his whore.
I, personally, adore Hannah Arendt, but that is another story.
It was proven that [Adolf] Eichmann [who was in charge of deporting Jews] was not banal, that he was a real dedicated Nazi.
Röhrig: The biggest problem Hannah Arendt had with Eichmann was his German was not good. She left the trial before it was over to write the book. It was so clear that she developed this theory and [then] she used the trial to showcase her theory.
There is a very plausible case to show that Eichmann was really a monster. He wasn’t the figure that Hannah Arendt created.
I have that argument [about Arendt] almost every other week with my mother. But there were other banal workers [in the Third Reich], which her evidence DOES illustrate.
At Cannes with (2nd fr lf-rt) Laslo Nemes, co-writer Clara Royer, lead Géza Röhrig, Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and sound designer Tamás Zányi. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
Röhrig: Yeah, I think her theory is quite brilliant. I just don’t think Eichmann is the right example [and] the title is terrible.
Actually, I prefer her other book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ .
Röhrig: Right. Actually, I find deafening the silence of philosophers, Germans included, and give credit to Hannah Arendt for dealing with the subject. So many of them—forget Heidegger—just didn’t make it a central theme.
Can you imagine, in German civilization??? If [Nazims] is what you get for 12 years in the middle of the 20th century, this should have posed a really huge question mark. I have some critical remarks but I do give Hannah Arendt credit where it is due.
She is kind of rebel Jew; she is from my neighborhood in the Upper West Side of New York [residing there 1940-75]; and the Jewish aristocracy kicked her out for those remarks. She was quite brilliant but had some flaws.
Röhrig: Right. It came out just a few years ago in ‘The [Black] Notebooks’ of Martin Heidegger . Have you seen it?
The sleazy, bourgeois way he was cheating on his wife and how [Arendt] played along. It wasn’t a romantic love. Martin Heidegger had a number of other lovers at the same time. When you read about the whole thing, Hannah Arendt doesn’t come out as someone with a lot of self-esteem. It is a sorry thing to know.
I like Hannah Arendt, I even like her aesthetically. She is my kind of Jewish girl—I like her look—but her affair with Martin is—
Very difficult stuff! Still, I am supporter of it and I am supporter of interracial affairs, even in the Holocaust.
Röhrig: It has nothing to do with race, it is a personal issue. First of all, their love doesn’t seem to be all that ‘genius’ [they are still considered two of the top minds of 20th century in philosophy and history].
Second of all, Heidegger, he never reflected [on it] one way or the other. He never revoked his Nazi membership. It is really amazing to me what a cult is built around him.
He is a sick fuck!
You know the story about when she comes back to Marburg [the mediaeval university town near Cologne where Heidegger taught] in ’49, or so?
Röhrig: Remind me.
Nemes on the gas chamber set checks sound. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
She sends him a note: ‘I’m here.’ A half an hour later, he is running through the streets with flowers, perhaps chocolates. They sit at her hotel café, gabbing, gabbing, until his wife, a blond Nazi, she comes and drags him by the ear away from this Jewish whore—another movie!
Röhrig: It should be another movie.
Jumping back to your movie: You were the guy.
Röhrig: I was the guy.
Obviously, that was a very deep meditation on the subject. Is there anything you gleaned from the acting experience that was not expressed in the film?
Röhrig: You know, it didn’t start with the film. I was 47 years-old when I read the script. That is a middle-aged man—even among us, there is no way to deny it. I had my own decades on the planet.
This subject matter, I was very connected to [it] for various reasons. I wrote about it; I thought about it; I felt about it. All along, from 12 [years-old] on, it was on my mind—
And you are Jewish, of course?
Röhrig: Yes. A lot of aspects of my personal journey came into fruition in this role.
The Sonderkommando was not something I felt I needed to be [expressed but] once I got the role I feverishly began to read about that specific squad. That was, for me, the gate to enter.
I needed to know, in a very precise way, what they were doing. I wasn’t interested in thoughts or feeling, I just needed to know: how was the gold teeth extracted? How were used the pliers? When or where or how? The scene with the women’s hair, the cleaning of ashes, what the bone meal looked like.
I wanted to know, in a very detailed way—in a manual way almost—in order to get to that state of mind. Twelve hours for a night shift or a day shift, [they had] to do this. I needed to numb myself. I couldn’t unless I understood what was the ordeal they went through.
So there was lots of preparation. In the end, László had seven or ten years of his life in this movie. The cinematographer Mátyás is an extremely sensitive guy. The two of us were a duet, almost dancing [since Röhrig’s front or back is in almost every shot].
How did you do all that—all hand held?
Röhrig: They didn’t use Steady Cam; it was all hand held; and it was a very heavy camera.
Was there someone behind the cinematographer guiding him?
Röhrig: There was always one or two guys holding his belt and the cables.
Nemes: Four guys!
Röhrig: Four guys, especially when he was walking backwards.
Röhrig as Saul in one of the most soul-killing scenes of the entire dark history: Jews forced to load other Jews into the gas chambers. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
You had never acted before?
Röhrig: I did some acting in my early twenties [including the Hungarian TV series, ‘Eszmélet’, 1989] but nothing as significant as this.
When did you guys meet?
Röhrig: We met in ’07 in New York. Laslo was studying at NYU. We became friends.
The cowriter is?
Nemes: Clara [Royer], she is French.
She looks like your girlfriend in some photos, your arm around—
Nemes: Really? She is like my little sister. I am five years older. We are very good friends. She is my creation. [I am being] ironic.
Röhrig: [laughs] I am sure he says the same thing about me behind my back.
Nemes: She is very smart girl.
A Jewish historian?
Nemes: No. She is not.
The thing is: she learned screen writing with me—she had never done a screenplay before. She learned extremely fast what [my story] was about and how we had to, you know, use information in the film—it shouldn’t be an over-informative piece.
We worked years and years on that and it was a great adventure for both of us.
Out of curiosity, what is the supposed location, that had an elevator going to the crematoria?
Nemes: We actually mixed two crematoria in the film, the two and three and the four and five. It looks like the four or five.
Röhrig: In Birkenau [Auschwitz’s secondary ‘death camp’].
Nemes: But for the interior, for the underground part, it is more like two or three, but we had three levels [instead].
But you didn’t define it.
Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély handholding and backing up to film Röhrig on the camp set. photo: courtesy L. Nemes
The Sonderkommando rebelling sounds like Auschwitz.
Röhrig: October 6th 1944.
Nemes: There were other Sonderkommandos that rebelled—Treblinka [October 1943].
How was the reaction in Hungary, which I hear is becoming more right wing?
Röhrig: It has been right wing for a while—
Nemes: 100 years!
Röhrig: Right. But the reaction is [good]. It is going to be a 100,000 [in ticket sales] in a matter of weeks, which is huge for Hungary, which is ten million [population], a small country.
I have done a lot of Q and As with high schools and, for me, the most important thing is what young people say. They must be connected to history.
I am the father of four. I know, with all these digital devices, they think the past, history from 70 years ago, is boring. They see this movie because their teachers and parents are asking them—demanding them. Then they are telling me that they are shaken by it.
That is the whole idea, since the survivors are dying. They are the link. I think the memories of the Holocaust are going to fade in the coming decades due to the lack of witnesses.
And your family lives in Budapest?
Röhrig: I have been living in New York for 15 years.
Nemes: I live in Budapest.
You also grew up in Paris and your father was a filmmaker [András Jeles, 1945-, director of eight features, including ‘A Kis Valentinó’ 1979, and ‘Dream Brigade’ 1989]?
Nemes: I don’t advertise that. We don’t have relations… He is an asshole.
Really? He never made a film about the Holocaust?
Röhrig: He did. Is it called… What is it in English?
Nemes and Röhrig blend both effortlessly and with high contrast their native Hungarian culture with that of Paris, New York and now San Francisco. photo: D. Blair
Nemes: Doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t talk about my father. He is just jealous, unfortunately.
You studied with this other [Hungarian] filmmaker, Bela Tar?
Nemes: I was his assistant.
It says [online that] he was quite the filmmaker and philosopher but with a pessimistic view. But it seems like you are not a pessimist.
Röhrig: Why, you find the movie optimistic?
Nemes: In a way, it is.
Yeah, the second to last scene, in a sense, is redemptive.
Röhrig: You know what an optimist is?
A pessimist who hasn’t been mugged?
Röhrig: That is good, too, but an optimist is, by definition, is an under-informed pessimist.
Nemes: [laughs] I’m OK with that.
Röhrig: I would go with the word ‘hopeful,’ maybe, but I don’t think it is an optimistic movie.
Nemes: Hope, yeah.
It is hardly a highly optimistic movie but we are living in a time of conspiracy theories.
Nemes: That is true.
I’m sure they are massive in Hungary. There are massive here in San Francisco, which is type of paradise. But they are not big with us descendants of Holocaust survivors because we know the real conspiracy.
Nazi Germany was the most conspiracy-addicted society in the world.
Nemes: Conspiracy theories are well rooted in far right ideology. That is something basic.
That was their whole thing, from the Jewish ‘Stab in the Back’ theory of [the German surrender in] WWI to ‘The Jews are taking over.’
I trace it to hatred of the father. If you hate your father and you can’t express it, then you have to hate someone else.
Röhrig: But why the father—why not the mother?
As the new spokespeople for a fresh Holocaust perspective, Nemes and Röhrig are confronted with a monumental and exhausting task. photo: D. Blair
The mother usually does a little something—changes your diapers—but the father, he often leaves or beats you.
Hitler’s father [was vicious]. You know Alice Miller’s stuff [‘For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence’, 1983]? Almost every Nazi was beaten to pulp by age three.
I see something like that in my friends who are conspiracy theorists, their fathers were distant. Same pattern, frightening.
Röhrig: You have kids?
Röhrig: Just don’t beat them. [laughter all around]
So you are an optimist?
So you didn’t get much inspiration from previous Holocaust films?
Nemes: Negative inspiration.
And the photos you mentioned? Or was there a book, or something by survivors, that [snaps fingers] turned the light on?
Röhrig: The scrolls.
Nemes: The scrolls. The writings by the Sonderkommandos.
That were buried, what are those titles?
Röhrig: I think you [Nemes] read it in French. I don’t think it is published in English, just [excerpts by] experts on the Internet. The French title in English would be ‘Voices Under the Ash’—
Nemes: ‘The Ashes’. Actually, it does exist [in English]; someone showed me a copy but not under that title.
Well there is Kitty Hart’s ’Return to Auschwitz’ [movie, 1980, book 1981]. She was in the Sonderkommando.
You refer to the ‘scrolls’, in the movie. At one point, Saul says to a guy who is harassing him, ‘I will tell them where you are burying your notes.’ A little inside joke?
Röhrig: Right. Those were found in 1962 in Auschwitz, in a metal milk container.
Nemes: Oh! [finds them on the Internet on his phone] ‘Nightmares of Crime’: published by the state museum of Auschwitz in 1973. It is hard to get.
Although Nemes and Röhrig didn't expect to be contradicted in their Holocaust analysis, they were open to new ideas in a field that is often far from full of innovation. photo: D. Blair
Röhrig: But they found them in 1962, mostly written in Yiddish, in secret.
Did you argue with Clara [Royer] about having Saul lose the gunpowder or some other details, which has him as a little bit of an anti-hero?
Nemes: We sensed him as an anti-hero from the beginning, and agreed on that. But we didn’t want to make a drama out of it. It was to be every day life-like.
Right, right. How he is running around, almost thrown into the pit, then pulled back?
Nemes: This is about the vortex of Auschwitz, the craziness. It’s a mixture of chaos and organization.
When the organized factory is overwhelmed by the sheer number of people arriving to be killed, they have to open the pits anew. That is what happened in Auschwitz when the Hungarians were arriving [in 1944].
Röhrig: Auschwitz was begging the Germans not to send this much ‘load,’ or ‘cargo.’ They were risking their operations by having the fire which you could see through the chimneys. They said, ‘We can be bombed.’ They didn’t want to do the night shift.
It was madness because Russians were so close already. [Hitler] should really have made a more self-interested decision. After losing the war, it looked like he didn’t care about his people; he just went full steam with the extermination.
The irony is, at the very end, they couldn’t kill my mother. The Germans believed in Natural Selection, Darwinism.
But, in the end, Sexual Selection [was more prominent]. The fact is they couldn’t make 20 year-old boys shoot 20 year-old girls. In fact, the gas chamber was designed so you could kill 20 year-old girls at a distance.
In the end, my mother was in a transport with 2000 other Jewish girls—the rebirth of the Jewish nation right there—but they didn’t set up a machine gun nest and shoot them. They were shipping them to the Mauthausen concentration camp [which had a gas chamber].
Nemes: How many survived of those?
Not that many because they were starving. But they were in the best shape possible since Rumkowski kept them alive until August 1944, so a certain number survived. But then my mother’s partner committed suicide—some couldn’t survive psychologically.
The Lodz Reunion, held in 1985, was pretty big because so many survived.
Röhrig: I just wanted to ask you, don’t you find it paradoxical: you said you love interracial things. But if there is a lot of interracial things, after a while there would be no races.
Yeah, that’s complex. But I am from an interracial marriage and I am Jewish. I figure let the best tribe win.
Röhrig: I understand.
I am fascinated by interracial relationships during the Holocaust; my mother was flirting with a German; a friend of hers was saved by a Nazi. Her mother said, ‘No, we can’t go with a Nazi,’ so she and younger sibling died. But her father, brother and she survived—hidden in Warsaw by a Nazi!
Those are the grey areas previous films haven’t examined. Speaking of which are you thinking of making another Holocaust film?
Nemes: We’re done!
Done. I can sympathize, totally. Do you have another project in mind?
Nemes: Before the First World War.
And [Géza] you will be involved as well?
Röhrig: In some capacity, hopefully, but it is about a woman.
But women sometimes like men.
Röhrig: Maybe I can have a little interracial something—just kidding. [laughs]
Nemes: I won’t comment on that. Thank you, very nice meeting you, good conversation.
Thank you for a great movie.
Nemes: You don’t have to say that.
And after signing a complimentary poster, we were off, into the maelstrom that is the Mark Hopkins Hotel lobby during the Christmas season, although there is no setting that could somehow mitigate the experience of meeting with Nemes and Röhrig, two expert cine artists, and meditating in-depth on the Holocaust.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Mar 06, 2016 - 02:57 PM