Laszlo Nemes‘ Son of Saul (Sony Pictures Classics, 12.18) has been praised over under sideways down since it premiered at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. I found it devastating along with nearly every other critic of note. “No day at the beach but one of the most searing and penetrating Holocaust films I’ve ever seen,” I wrote on 5.14.15, “and that’s obviously saying something.” Yes, a Holocaust film — one of the most well-worn genres of the last three or four decades — but one with an urgent sense of interiors and intimacy. Saul will almost certainly be among the five nominees for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar, and I’d be more than a little surprised if it doesn’t win. It’s that kind of stand-out and a definite must-see.
Son of Saul director & co-writer Laszlo Nemes at Telluride’s Sheridan Hotel — Sunday, 9.6, 12:40 pm.
So I asked yesterday if I could speak with Nemes around lunch today. We sat down in a rear parlor at the Sheridan Hotel. Here’s the mp3. Born in Hungary, raised in Paris and an occasional childhood visitor to the U.S., the 38 year-old Nemes speaks excellent English. He seems fairly brilliant in a fair-minded, relatively easygoing way. He smiles easily. His eyes don’t look away much and they don’t seem to lie.
Shot entirely in close-ups (and occasional medium close-ups), Son of Saul is a Hungarian-made, soul-drilling, boxy-framed art film about an all-but-mute fellow (Geza Rohrig) with a haunted, obliterated expression. This titular-named survivor — a walking dead man, a kind of ghost — toils in an Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp as a Sonderkommando — i.e., prisoners who assisted the Germans in exterminating their fellow inmates in order to buy themselves time. The film is basically about Saul risking his life — foolishly, illogically — in order to properly bury a young boy who’s been exterminated, a boy he doesn’t know but whom he repeatedly claims in his son.
Why? Because Saul wants to fulfill a small act of honor before he dies — he wants to show reverence and respect for the boy, for his people, for life itself before the end.
“In general Saul is alone in what he tries to accomplish,” Nemes observes. “As a living dead [man] he finds something that activates a shred in humanity in him, and the movie is about how this this voice starts to make more sense than anything else.”
When he was seeking state funds in his native Hungary, Nemes explained that he “didn’t want to make the usual film about the Holocaust. I want the viewer to experience what a single individual feels….how do you not make a classic historical drama and instead create something visceral?…because that’s what I thought would mostly talk to today’s audiences.
“If you try to shoot too much, you wind up with too little,” he said. “I wanted to rely on the viewer to create, in their imagination, something of the frenzy and horror and limitedness that a person is likely to experience in an extermination camp.
“In the usual holocaust films we see things from the outside. And I wanted this shot from the inside.”
Saul has screened here in Telluride, of course, and will soon screen in Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the London Film Festival. Nemes will of course be making the promotional rounds during these festivals; he’ll also be hitting New York and Los Angeles to promote the 12.18 opening.
Again, the mp3.
Hitchcock/Truffaut director and New York Film festival honcho Kent Jones with Nemes today in Sheridan Hotel lobby — 1:05 pm.