"It's not a film about survival, but rather about reality and death"
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2015: In competition at Cannes for the first time, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes deciphers his extraordinary Son of Saul Cannes 2015 - Grand Prix
Hungarian director László Nemes has made a very strong impact with his feature debut, Son of Saul [+see also:
Q&A: László Nemes
interview: László Rajk
film profile] (read the review); he has come hurtling straight into the competition of the 68th Cannes Film Festival with the movie, causing a real sensation on the Croisette. We met up with the director the day after the official screening of the film.
Where did the idea of addressing this subject of the Sonderkommandos in the Auschwitz concentration camp come from?
László Nemes: My first source of inspiration was reading the document Des voix sous la cendre (lit. “Voices from Beneath the Ashes”), a collection of testimonies written by and about the Sonderkommandos, which had been hidden away in 1944. It was just like being there, in their lives, on the inside. Then, together with my co-screenwriter, Clara Royer, we did a huge amount of research. I also had some personal reasons for making this film because a number of my family members were murdered at Auschwitz. It's something that has been brewing deep down, that whole process of hunting them down, those terrible things that happened to us...
Quite a lot of films have dealt with the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War
I was frustrated by the approach to depicting this dark time in fiction films. By adopting an emotional standpoint, you end up with exactly the opposite of what the movie should have been. These films try too hard to make an impression, the approaches they use are predictable, they veer off in every direction, showing this or that, and let's not forget that really diabolical guy... They try to create this extremely murky world at any cost. I wanted to get away from all that and bring everything back to the present. For instance, Schindler's List is a very good film, very talented, very dramatic, almost epic, but it's about survival. I didn't want to make a film about survival, but rather about reality and death. Because survival is a lie; it was the exception. And I thought that I shouldn't be dealing with groups or events, but rather that I should be talking about a human being in an extermination camp: what did he really see? What did he hear? From A to B, what did he know about A? And about B? Was there a C? We all have this vision of the camps from the guards' point of view, but no one in the camps had that point of view; there were as many points of view as there were individuals – narrow, obstructive and frustrating outlooks.
Why did you choose a very immersive style and pace?
I made three short films with the DoP, Matyas Erdely, and we had already worked on trying to find a different way of telling stories, by examining the possibilities related to autofocus, optics, cinematics and so on. On the basis of the initial idea of a man in charge of burning people, who wants to bury the body of someone he believes to be his son, we first of all worked to address the different stages of his journey in order to polish the film.
What were the moral boundaries that you set for yourselves?
When you want to show too much, you end up with a lot less, in my opinion. But in this film, if we showed too little, it was problematic because we would have dumbed down the horror, and you cannot dumb down the horror. So the strategy was one of extrapolation: providing the viewer with immeasurably few elements in such a way as to really stimulate their imagination. I think that's closer to what would have been the experience in the camps, to the feeling you would have had there as a human being. Suggesting something is more powerful than showing it. We have a man who works in a crematorium, and we follow him around. He doesn't pay too much attention to the horror, because he's used to it. So the viewer doesn't see it either, but they see what has sparked this man's quest: the boy. It's an inner story amongst all this darkness. And what's in the background is in the background. But we know it's a factory of death, and we have some fragmented signs of that. We don't show anything, apart from by way of indirect representation. Yet the factory is operational, killing people, and there are bodies. But if we had put in too many gory elements, it would have become a spectacle, a form of entertainment in a certain way – and in a bad way. And I didn't want to do that.
(Translated from French)