When I spoke with actor Géza Röhrig and director/co-writer László Nemes on December 12, 2015, I knew it was going to be a serious conversation. I also knew that it was going to be as insightful as their film, SON OF SAUL. We started the interview with my asking why these two would want to immerse themselves for the time necessary to make the film about this time, this place, and this story of the Sonderkommando, concentration camp prisoners who do the work of leading fellow prisoners to the gas chamber, and then taking the bodies to the crematoria for disposal for so long. Rohrig, plays Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, and his reasons turned out to be very personal, as he recalled learning for the first time, at age 12, about his own family members who had been murdered by the Nazis, and the effect to telling him about it had on his grandfather. Nemes talked about his sense of anger that had always been there for him, as well as the lack of understanding, that latter being what has spurred him to make not just SON OF SAUL, but also three short films previous to it, films that all dealt, in strikingly original, thought-provoking ways, with how everyday people dealt with their fellow citizens suddenly being reduced to subhuman status.
He went on to discuss why he wanted to take audiences out of their comfort zone, confront them with the reality of death, and how the cinematography of shallow depth-of-field and stunning tracking shots, were integral to that. I then asked Rohrig to describe the effect of such close-ups, as well as the rigors of tracking shots on his acting choices, and how he used the emotional deadness of expression that is one of the manifestations of PTSD, to express what the film as a whole does so beautifully: the desperate clinging to humanity when all is lost.
SON OF SAUL is set in Auschwitz near the end of World War II, and is one day in the life of Saul, who is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners kept separate from the others, and who are tasked with leading their fellow Jews into the gas chamber, and then reducing them to ashes in the crematoria at Auschwitz. After months of doing this, Saul suddenly becomes obsessed with providing a proper burial for one of the victims of the gas chamber. Stealing the body, finding a rabbi to perform the Kaddish, and then finding a way to bury the body rather than have it burn like the others, he created friction with his fellow Sonderkommando’s, risking the living for the dead as one puts it to him. To which Saul replies, we are dead already. Using intricate tracking shots, shallow-depth of field, and camera placement that puts us directly, intimately, uncomfortably into the action, we in the audience because participants as well as witnesses, providing an unparalleled insight into what it was like to be trapped in an unthinkable reality. Nemes directed from a script he co-wrote with Clara Royer. The film won several awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including the FIPRESCI Prize, and is the official Hungarian selection for the foreign language Academy Award.