Q&A with SON OF SAUL director Laszlo Nemes

Son of Saul

We’re hosting a special member preview of SON OF SAUL this Wednesday, January 20 at 7pm. Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the movie chronicles the story of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in the disposal of gas chamber victims. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the body of a boy he believes to be his son. As other members of the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the child’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish, and offer the boy a proper burial. “A film that looks into the abyss, this shattering portrait of the horror of Auschwitz. . . [is] a bombshell debut . . .an utterly harrowing, ultra-immersive experience, and not for the fainthearted.”—New York Film Festival.

Screening open to Silver Screen Club members and Portland Jewish Film Festival sponsors only. 

More info about how to become a Silver Screen Club member HERE.



What follows is a Q&A with the director of SON OF SAUL, Laszlo Nemes, at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival, transcribed by Gloria Hammer. Gloria writes for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine and is a producer of THE THREE RABBIS (in collaboration with OPB), a documentary film nominated for an Emmy.

Son of Saul, Directed by Laszlo Nemes, has won a Golden Globe for 2016 Best Director of a Foreign Language film and has been nominated for an Oscar. It stars Geza Rohrig , as Saul and is set in Auschwitz in 1944. Saul plays a Sondercommando, an inmate forced to work in the camp herding arrivals into showers and then dragging their bodies to the crematorium. Afterwards cleaning up the remains. Saul sees the body of a boy and is obsessed with giving the corpse a Jewish burial. No matter how many Holocaust films you have seen, you have not seen one like this. The cameras focus tightly on Saul. There are eight languages going on with English subtitles.

I was fortunate to attend this year’s, Palm Springs International Film Festival. We knew this was going to be an intense film but we also knew we could not miss it. We were taken by surprise to have the 38 year old Hungarian film Director come on stage immediately following the film to answer questions. Mr. Nemes was soft-spoken, passionate and the whole experience was riveting.



Why did you do the film in this way?

This is not an easy film. I thank you for staying. After watching this film it is not easy to listen to someone talk about this film. I understand that sometimes it can be useful. I had this feeling the holocaust became a distraction over the past years. I wanted to give a sort of visceral interpretation of the human experience of the camp and the extermination machine. I think it is something that’s never really been approached or communicated in the so-called holocaust films. I think the holocaust films have established a code, a set of codes that are actually reassuring the audiences instead of going to the heart of the incredible industrial machinery of extermination that was put in place not so long ago. I really wanted to not have this kind of history approach but to put the audience in the middle in the here and now.


Who distributed your film? And discuss the research that went into your film?

It was released by Sony picture Classics and distributed in the United States. The release date was December 18th and it’s going to be a gradual release nation wide.

I first read about the diaries of different members of the Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz ten years ago. These are texts that offered incredible incite into the essence of the extermination machinery. These are people, who knew they were going to die and witnessed the exterminations first hand. They tried to leave a trace and put some of those writings into the ground around the crematorium of Auschwitz. Some of the texts were found. Not all of them. We think 90 percent of the texts have never been found. They are still there. Talking to us. That was the beginning of the film project. I wanted to anchor the film as much as possible into the facts that I read through these texts and through the information I had access too. But information is very limited when you approach the Sonderkommandos. It was a long research for the film.


What was your reasoning behind your filming approach, using close ups and leaving everything else in the peripheral behind?

Actually, in cinema when you want to show too much and you have the strategy of frontal representation I believe you actually diminish the moral scope or the significance of what you show. You make it understandable. The audience can encompass what they see. The imagination of the viewer is not working. I knew that I had to find away to make it a personal experience, for that I had to narrow the scope. We wanted to make a portrait of one individual. One thing that makes sense, that you could represent, is the honesty in the human face. Everything else is in reference to that. There is one reference point. It is the human face and then the imagination to function, to recreate to have the intuition of the suffering that is taking place in the background. It has to go through the viewer’s imagination. You can open the perspective this way. Otherwise, you only diminish it. That is why the very classical approach of revealing is actually very problematic and it doesn’t take the audience in a personal way.


Do you think Saul’s journey was a search for redemption? Or was this his son?

I am very reluctant to give a manual to the film. I think I really wanted to offer a personal experience. It had to be a simple story. The real question within the story is whether you the viewer has to answer, in away is there a possibility when there is no more hope, no more religion, no more god and nothing human is there still the possibility to remain human. And that is the question of the film. I am not saying what the main character wants to accomplish has to make sense to everybody. But it is a question. If Saul in the film, and the other members around him do not understand what he is trying to accomplish but it makes sense to him. We hope it makes sense to the viewer after awhile. I hope after watching the film it starts making sense.


Is this a personal story for you?

It is…especially when you are European. It is part of your history. It is definitely part of my genetic code I carry the destruction of my family in my body. It’s just there. You have the continent at the height of civilization that turns to this kind of destruction of people. It raises questions about the direction of civilization. It still does, it is still our question and I think if Cinema doesn’t ask these kinds of questions then what is the point of cinema? So I think I really wanted a personal view. My family they either did not come back or they went into hiding. But nobody came back. So, my story is, I always try to project myself, the individual experience of it.


What is Hungary’s reaction to your film particularly with the current government?

It is paradoxical. You have Hungary the only country that was willing to finance this film. And at the same time, obviously, Hungary is very anti-Semitic, I would say as is the rest of Europe, or the rest of the world, but Hungary, you can feel it. I think they don’t really know how to react. The film did well. But lets say a lot of people still ignore it or just try to consider it as the work of some foreign conspiracy. So that is problematic and paradoxical at the same time.


Can you talk about your main actor…Geza Rohrig, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film?

He hasn’t done acting since the 1990’s. He was supposed to become a film director. I knew him. He is a poet and a writer living in New York. He had an incredible life and I think the whole question of the Holocaust always obsessed him. For that reason he understood this project from the very beginning. He understood that we wanted to go back to the middle of it without the post war interpretation of the Holocaust. It was easy to communicate with him and I think he is an ordinary man but at the same time he is a very profound person. He has a real philosophy about all of this. It was very meaningful and intense to work with him.


Any Comparison with what went on in your film and the action of Hungary today and the Syrian Refugees?

There is a rise in extremism in the world today and genocides being carried out as we speak. In Syria, Iraq, I think the genocidal tendency in human nature is very present and Auschwitz gave us a blueprint. Before that the Armenian

Genocide took place. All part of the industrialization of the killing machine in a progressively technological world. It is a scary echo. The refugee problem is a European problem. It is a Civil War with all the massacres and genocide going on not being controlled spreads and Europe is not prepared for it.


Comment on Saul and the relationship with the woman in the barracks?

I am reluctant to comment. We kind of like the fact that we cannot explain everything. This is the philosophy behind the film. You’re in the camps you have access to very little information and the way the story is told. You the viewer are in the middle of this. We wanted to have a sort of emotional link to someone who is still alive, in this scene the main character just says good bye to the living world. We had a previous version that gave away a little more information of the relationship they had before but we did not want that. It is a little mysterious.


Tell us about the audio tract.

The sound was done mainly post-production. Five months for post-production for sound, which is quite an extensive period. We had eight languages in the film. We wanted to immerse the viewer in this reality. And the sound had to say that there is much more than the image. There is much more than you can see, the picture being very narrow. There is a constant reference to the infinite madness going on around. It is always evolving. It was along process to design that.








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