Auschwitz drama shows humanity amidst the savagery

Géza Röhrig in a scene from Son of Saul

László Nemes tells Helen Barlow how his Oscar-winning Auschwitz drama, Son of Saul, is still relevant for today’s world

IF ever there was a film to shake up the Cannes Festival, then Son of Saul did that last year. We’ve all seen Holocaust dramas, though never one quite like this. Hungarian first-time film-maker László Nemes took out the festival’s Grand Prix and Critics’ prizes and went on to win the Oscar and Golden Globe for foreign film.

At the Oscars, Nemes thanked Hungary for financing the €1.5m production, which won the country its first foreign-language award since the fall of communism. France, Austria, Germany, and Israel had turned it down.

“I want to share this with Geza Rohrig, my main actor, and the incredible cast and crew who believed in this project when no one else did,” Nemes told the crowd. “You know, even in the darkest hours of mankind there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human. That’s the hope of this film.”

In our earlier interview Nemes, who is Jewish — his maternal great-grandparents died in the camps — explained how his film is different from other films about the atrocity.

“Most stories of the Holocaust are about survival, but the very heart and the feeling of it has never really been approached. I have always been very interested in what it was like really to be there, because everything is so coloured and changed in hindsight.”

DAY IN THE LIFE

Son of Saul places us in an Auschwitz extermination camp as we follow a day and a half in the life of Saul Ausländer (Rohrig), a Sonderkommando who, like other select Jewish prisoners is allowed to live for a few months if he works in the gas chambers. Little is known of these men. They are in many ways the walking dead.

“When I came across the writings of the Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz scrolls I was transported into the middle of it,” Nemes recalls.

“These men were forced to burn their own people and they made writings before dying. They knew they would be liquidated and put those notes into the ground. Those notes were found after the war.

“They described their daily tasks like taking out personal belongings and sorting them out; how the work was organised; the rules by which the camp was run and Jews exterminated; as well as how they put together a certain form of resistance.”

In the story, Saul seeks a kind of redemption by adopting the corpse of a boy as his own son and pulling out all the stops to bury him. He knows he is about to die in any case, so what if they kill him over it?

“Saul is more involved in making sure his soul survives than his body, and the way you nurture your soul is to give to somebody else,” Nemes says. “So he wants to bury this boy, he wants to do something for someone else. It’s a selfless orientation.”

Nemes, 39, is the son of a theatre director and was born in Budapest.

Director László Nemes with his Oscar.
Director László Nemes with his Oscar.

He left Hungary with his mother when he was 12 and grew up in Paris, where he made horror films in the family basement. He studied at the Sorbonne, then at the Tisch School at NYU, where he met Rohrig.

At 26, he returned to Hungary to learn the ropes of film-making and worked for two years with the very artful Bela Tarr. He spent eight years preparing Son of Saul with Rohrig, who had initially studied to become a rabbi, before pursuing an eclectic career as a poet, teacher, actor, and one-time punk rocker.

Although a fan of horror movies, Nemes knew he couldn’t present the story, which he co-wrote with Clara Royer, in this manner.

“It would be a scandal. But if you restrain it, make it narrow, and make it personal, an individual story, then you rely on the viewer and their imagination.”

Nemes keeps the dialogue — in languages including Hungarian and Yiddish — to a minimum. The industrial sounds and atmospheric monochromatic look give an eerie sense of foreboding. “When the image is not there to give you a lot of information, the sounds can say much more. It’s a huge machine; it’s like a beast. It’s moving and never sleeps. It has a dynamic quality to it. It’s living, the death is living there.”

Nemes says his film is “a mixture of chaos and organisation, exactly like the camp” and we witness that through Saul’s eyes. How was it for Rohrig to be the focus of attention during the entire movie?

WORK OR DIE

“You get used to it,” Rohrig, 48, admits. “My job was to be present and not to bring any of my own personality from today. I had to be from 1944. There was no job description for the Sonderkommando. The way it happened there was a first selection, where you either went to the gas chambers or you were found to be fit to work. Then there was a second selection; the men were lined up naked and they picked people for the Sonderkommando, who were quarantined and separated from the rest of the camp.

“What choice did they have? Once they figured out what their work would be, some did commit suicide, but others felt strong enough to go on and try to survive. The only way to do it was to desensitise your whole being: To not see what you see and to not hear what you hear and to go through the day minute by minute.”

UNIVERSAL ISSUE

For both Nemes and Rohrig, the story is universal and not just about the Second World War. “It’s about human suffering,” says the actor. “If our parents were being murdered, if our children were being taken away, we’d react the same. This is not a Jewish issue only. I hope that people respond to this film because the level of cruelty, inhumanity, savagery and bestiality that was present in the camps, unfortunately we can’t say is behind us, given what’s happening in the world at the moment.”

Nemes adds: “We are talking in the film about genocide and what’s going on in Syria and Iraq is comparable to genocide.”

Does he feel guilty to feel happy about his film’s extraordinary reception? “No, because it’s not happiness. I’ve been living in there in a sense. Now it gives hope but it’s been a tough job.”

‘Son of Saul’ opens in selected cinemas tomorrow, and will show at Triskel in Cork on May 22-25


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