By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: On SON OF SAUL

Just as there hasn’t been a documentary about the Holocaust to surpass Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, it’s hard to imagine a future fictional narrative that would come close to matching Son of Saul, writer-director László Nemes’ debut feature about Auschwitz-Birkenau in the waning months of World War II. In terms of vision, artistry, innovation, and intensity, there’s never been anything like it. It’s the polar opposite of so many previous, similarly-themed films. Of course there will always be more Holocaust movies, although few to none, I’ll hazard a guess, with the impact of Son of Saul. There is no catharsis or relief or uplift to be found, only a credible approximation of the relentless hell that was the Nazi death factory. And yet you cannot look away.

The plot is simple; in fact, everything basic to the narrative is contained in the lead character’s name: Saul Auslander. Auslander, from the German, means outsider, foreigner; this particular Auslander is a Hungarian deported to Poland to slave as a Sonderkommando, a Jewish concentration camp prisoner conscripted to assist the Nazis in exterminating other Jews. Saul is a Biblical name derived from the three-letter Hebrew root shin.aleph.lamed (sha’al), a verb that means to inquire or petition. One day while cleaning out the dead in a gas chamber, Saul discovers a boy he believes is his son; thereafter, he obsessively asks everyone who will listen: where within the camp might he find a rabbi to say Kaddish over the corpse and give it a proper burial?

The opening shot of the film begins out of focus. Gradually the figure of Saul emerges, and it is with him that the camera will stay for almost every shot of the movie; the entire film is foregrounded in Saul’s consciousness. Much of the film consists of long takes, and there are many close-ups of Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, who last acted over two decades ago in two productions in his native Hungary, and has in the years since worked as a poet and Jewish studies teacher in the Bronx. Some journalists have compared Röhrig to Mark Ruffalo and Jean-Paul Belmondo in terms of “type,” or looks. Viewers understandably make these associations, but part of the strength of Son of Saul relies on Röhrig being a fresh cinematic face; because he is a tabula rasa, nothing interferes with the audience’s connection with his character. We don’t look at him and think, oh, Geza Röhrig, famous actor—although his performance is so masterful and visceral, after this he may well be Geza Röhrig, movie star, should he wish to pursue that path.

Nemes, a Hungarian Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, grew up in Paris and is an alumnus of New York University’s film school, where he met his cinematographer, Matyas Erdely. However, Nemes has said he received a much better education during his apprenticeship to art-house auteur Bela Tarr, for whom he served as assistant director on The Man From London (2007). I caught up with Nemes and Rohrig during their recent trip to Los Angeles to promote Son of Saul, Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The Sony Pictures Classics title, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, opens commercially this weekend in platform release.

Writing about the TV mini-series “Holocaust” for the “New York Times” in 1978, Elie Wiesel used his review to express his dismay and concern over the danger of popular media treatments of the Shoah, which he believed would only lead to trivialization. Little could he know back then how many inaccurate, inept, and/or exploitative fictional treatments of the Holocaust would follow. I see Son of Saul as sort of a corrective to those many mediocre movies. Do you think that one of the reasons your film is so hard-hitting is that it is about the Sonderkommandos, a relatively unexplored chapter in fictional representations of the Shoah?

ROHRIG: The subject matter is not entirely new; think back to The Grey Zone [the 2001 drama by Tim Blake Nelson]. But we had to forge a new cinematic language—not dialogue, but the very grammar of film, and find a new angle. Most of the earlier Holocaust movies that people are referring to [when they’re comparing those films to Son of Saul] didn’t get the subject right, didn’t treat it right, or didn’t allow the horror to be felt. What Laszlo has shown is that the old ways of representation no longer work.

NEMES: Let me just add that I think the tendency in film for too many years has been to treat the Holocaust for its dramatic value. It became the standard to use it as background to raise the dramatic stakes in many different kinds of films [war stories, mysteries, romances]. I think we need to find the real meaning of the Holocaust, not to use it as an excuse for entertainment. [With our picture] we wanted to avoid the iconography, the dramatic and visual codes that have been used to reassure the viewer, rather than interrogate the viewer. We made this film because we wanted to go back to the engine, and re-tool it.

I saw your film at a large, packed house at the Chicago International Film Festival; there were maybe only two seats available in the front row, and no one in the audience spoke during the screening, or checked cell phones. They were thoroughly immersed in the film. What, if any, have been the differences between how American and European audience have responded to the film? And in Israel? I read that you had a festival screening in Israel.

NEMES: We had a very, very small screening in Israel, more like an industrial screening.

ROHRIG: Generally, I’ve found the older moviegoers are more linked to their own pasts, and younger viewers feel it differently. The responses have tended to vary more along generational lines. Because this film is coming from Hungary in a global age, the idea of audience reception being wildly different between European nations and America doesn’t fit my experience. But we don’t know yet about Germany and Israel.

NEMES: Actually, I went to the Hamburg Film Festival, and for the first time I saw it in a big venue that was only one third full of viewers. I’m a little worried about the Germans, I have to say, because for decades the Germans have established a practice of rewriting their history in cinematic terms, with movies like Das Boot and Downfall. They’ve come to the point of making films that almost glorify the Fuhrer. I’m pretty shocked by that development. Outside of the safe path that I’ve described [of festival screenings], there might not be much room in Germany today for this kind of film.

How was Geza cast? How did you two become acquainted?

ROHRIG: Some things are ordered from higher up. We were both studying at NYU, and were invited by a friend for a Sunday meal. We then began to meet to talk and walk around the city. Lazlo at the time was making his short films. He didn’t share with me what he was planning for a feature film. A couple of years later an email shows up in my inbox saying he had me in mind for this project, and he sent me the script [co-written by Nemes and French novelist Clara Royer]. Once I read it, I knew it was a very good script. For reference I had my own library on the subject, and had been very frustrated by previous depictions of the Holocaust. Because Laszlo carefully avoided the traps, his treatment was very effective and even radical. We started to talk and to rehearse. I was flown to Budapest, and put up in the production’s rented apartment, and they began to set challenges for me. Pretty much 9 to 5 we were trying to find that place I needed to get to in the movie, and I wasn’t trying to rush the process, or being overly nervous. After a month and a half, I had no reservations about taking the role.

How long was your shooting schedule?

NEMES: We had 28 consecutive days of shooting.

ROHRIG: Except for Shabbat, because I am a religious Jew.

That brings me to my next question. Obviously you know that Judaism doesn’t have the same focus on the afterlife as does Christianity; we Jews are supposed to be concentrating more on fulfilling certain obligations here on earth, rather than contemplating heaven and hell. However, a philosophically inclined Roman Catholic I once knew had, to my mind, a most sensible definition of hell, which he characterized as the absence of God. Am I off base here, but isn’t Saul’s quest on behalf of his dead son a form of tikkun olam, an attempt to coax God back into the world, and thereby help heal it?

ROHRIG: Many religions have meaningful approaches to spirituality. We all have our own upbringing, we all have our questions and desires, In this film, the very fact that Saul doesn’t know the Kaddish prayer, and that you don’t need a rabbi to say it for you, indicates that he has not had a religious upbringing. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a spiritual man. Saul, despite not having been trained as a practicing Jew, nonetheless behaves as he should. Without knowing it, he invents the mitzvah: it’s what you do, not what you say, not what you think, that counts. He was not looking for approval, or to medicate himself. I think by encountering this child, this miracle of surviving a gas chamber for nothing, he didn’t want this miracle to go to waste. At least for this boy, he‘s going to do the right thing. There are a few things halachically [by Jewish law] that you have to do, but for Saul, there was this personal mania underlying his actions. His determination was the one thing that allowed him to be in the image of God, even in this place. And for that reason, he was the only happy person in this movie.

Laszlo, your movie is so layered, given all the planes within your shots, with Saul in the foreground, and the background frequently out of focus. When the violence isn’t off-screen, it takes place in this fuzzy background where we can hardly comprehend it. Likewise, the sound comes at us in all directions, a cacophony of voices and languages that we can’t make sense of, so how could someone trying to survive in the middle of this chaos do any better? Can you elaborate on your strategy?

NEMES: For the camera, we knew that we wanted to accompany the main character very closely, because we knew we wanted a portrait of the man. His face reflects everything that goes on, he is the filter of everything. So we knew that we couldn’t represent the camp as something understandable; we had to create in the viewer’s imagination a reconstruction of experiences in the camp, where prisoners had only limited access to everything, from information to visuals. We had to convey in cinematic terms the individual’s sensations. We also wanted to immerse the viewer in this world, because we wanted to get visceral reactions. For that we had longer takes. And sound was designed to show there’s not much more [information] there than what you can see. The sound mixing was a long process, five months. We needed human voices, layered in different languages. The more we used, we found the more we needed. The fact that the viewer cannot identify the origins of sounds makes it restrictive, but it also reflects the experience of what went on. The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon