Don’t mention the H-word around the makers of Son of Saul. The Cannes Grand Pix-winning Holocaust drama may play like a horror movie, with its immersive, first-person POV journey into the tortured soul of a man forced to assist in the extermination of his own people. But director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig visibly recoil at the suggestion of fright-fest genre-play—even as they acknowledge their film’s forbidding aspects.
“People, even survivors, told me they were scared of seeing this film,” Nemes says, seated alongside his star. “But then when they watched it, they thanked me.”
Son of Saul certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into any category, not even the “Holocaust film” subgenre. Sallow-faced Saul (Röhrig) is enslaved in the death camps as a sonderkommando, conscripted to lead fellow Jews to extermination and then clean their corpses from the chamber. Amid the routines of atrocity, he impulsively decides to give a slain child a proper Jewish burial — logic and plausibility be damned. Nemes presents this waking nightmare via the cinematic equivalence of tunnel vision, keeping the character in tight close-up while most action happens at the periphery, off screen, or out of focus in the background. Imagine the world’s grimmest first-person video game.
Both director and actor say that they never sought to exploit the audience’s fears, and even avoided (quite literally) putting horrific imagery front and center on screen. “We’re never increasing the shock value for its own sake,” Röhrig says. “We’re always preferring restraint to excess.” The restraint extends to the information being supplied, as there’s no backstory of who Saul is or how he got here. He’s just a man in hell, and we’re thrust directly into the cauldron with him.
Their approach has been both highly praised and harshly criticized — in both respects thanks to its take-notice formal conceit, which, depending on the audience, either expresses or exploits the victim’s experience. But even its detractors use words like “masterful” and “virtuosity” to describe the effects of the movie’s unusual perspective. “We didn’t want to limit the scope of inhumanity that took place there by trying to shoot it frontally,” Nemes explains. “In a sense, [that] would make it understandable. Whereas by making a portrait, and making the information very fragmented, we opened the mental perspective of inhumanity.”
All told, it’s quite a dare for a first-time filmmaker to take. The 38 year-old Nemes was born in Budapest, grew up in Paris, studied film in New York, and apprenticed under Hungarian director Bela Tarr. “I had the feeling while making the film that it would be a failure,” Nemes confides.
“All along?” Röhrig asks, surprised.
Nemes nods and continues: “I found that I could not control the material the way I wanted to control it. We wanted to communicate the frenzy of the concentration camp, the lack of information, but what could the entire experience be? We had this feeling that we were constantly on the edge of the abyss.”
Röhrig says he didn’t share his director’s anxieties, though he was suspicious when first approached about the film. “This was an exploited subject matter, done well very few times,” he says. But the script lured him back to screen acting decades after his last appearance (a Hungarian miniseries from 1989). His hiatus was at least partly a function of spending the last 15 years in the U.S., where his strong accent forestalled opportunities. Nevertheless he says was undaunted by the challenges of playing Saul.
“I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but I really felt that I could do it,” he says. “Generally in life, when you speak to me or I speak to you, I make sure that my face kind of supports what I’m saying. But the way I had to play … imagine a harp. I couldn’t put my fingers on the strings. But let’s say a little breeze comes through the window. And then the strings resonate. It was less me trying to do something than something being done to me.”
Throughout Son of Saul, it’s what you don’t see that’s the toughest to accommodate. “What can we change in hell?” he asks, challenging the idea that a standard narratives or approach can apply to a situation such as this. “The fact that the main character is trying to save a dead body is already in a different realm. If we were trying to save a kid, it would have been an entirely different movie. That’s the paradigm of the Holocaust film — that this kind of hope can exist. Whereas we say this kind of hope doesn’t exist. But is there some kind of other thing, some other humanity that still transcends all religions or traditions? Is there a possibility for story in the concentration camp at all?”