When in 2010, László Nemes was trying to raise interest and money for his debut feature film, Son Of Saul, while still living in France after finishing university, the responses were varied but always ended with 'No'. Likewise, at first, in Hungary, where he was born and raised.
'Compelling ... but we're not interested' or 'it's too bold for a first film' or 'the directing vision won't sustain for the whole film' and of course, 'not another Holocaust film, please!'
But to be fair, the screenplay would have raised concerns anywhere in the filmmaking world, despite history proving that many risky, individual films are welcome by the critics and the public: they are nevertheless generally shunned by wary investors. He certainly intended it to be "a new kind of experience for audiences," he says, "but while I felt confident in the directorial strategy, I was not so confident it would get made."
And no, it's not another Holocaust film, at least not as that description would have you believe. "I didn't want to make a traditional period drama. I wanted to take the audience on an unexpected journey, a surprising one. We experimented with ways of doing that."
Saul is one of the Jewish sonderkommandos in Auschwitz, 1944; their task is to clean up after the Nazis have done with their murderous routines, move the bodies or parts of, send the corpses of slain Jews to the in incinerator or the callously functioning post mortem theatre. When he comes across a boy about to be dispatched, he behaves as if it were his own son and tries to save him from that cruel, inhumane end.
Nemes was first made aware of the existence of the sonderkommandos in Nazi concentration camps through a history book. "Here was something we were not aware of; I kept thinking about it but for a few years but I didn't know how to approach it for a screenplay ... "
When he started writing, he began to evolve a scenario, sparse but immersive. "I took a visual and moral approach and I had enough freedom to imagine it. The directorial approach was formed, closely following the central character and not being seduced by the visual possibilities." What he means is not showing the source of the cries, whimpers, shouting guards, metal clanging and horrified screams. "The aural strategy was already there in the screenplay," he says, but even after recording sound on set, some 70% was added in post production, resulting in a dense, powerful soundscape.
He cast the central character "not looking for an actor who could portray the whole range of emotions, but to simply embody the character of Saul." He found him in Geza Rohrig, whose face hardly registers the horrors of the camp nor the hopes of his mission. It’s his defence mechanism.
Back in Budapest in 2011 (after failing to finance it in France) Nemes was working in the film industry, at one time as Assistant Director to noted writer and filmmaker Béla Tárr. There, he was introduced to producer Gábor Sipos by another producer while exploring the possibilities of getting his film made. Sipos was interested, and suggested they make it for the lowest possible budget and see what happens then.
"The screenplay and vision allowed for that without compromising the material," says Nemes, sitting in the Kino cafe on Budapest's St István Circle, adjacent to the lovely old 19th century Veg comedy theatre, shortly after the Cannes triumph. In a crumpled pale blue shirt, sleeves rolled up in the summer heat, his sparse ginger beard adding to the impression of a university graduate, Nemes seems assured, although he says he is aware of the dangers in having his debut film achieving such a high profile.
"We didn't realise the film would be in Competition at first," he recalls, "just that it was in the Selection, so we expected a slot in Un Certain Regard. And we would have been very happy," he adds, still a bit surprised not just that it was in the main Competition, but that it won such a glittering accolade. "That the risks we took were recognised as a positive by the Festival is very reassuring and rewarding ... And very scary," he says, toying with the ice in his mineral water.
And perhaps it counters his fear that the European film industry is risk averse, at least on the festival circuit.
Behind him at another small table in the cafe, two young women are hunched over a laptop. Nemes waves in their direction. "That's my little team, working on the casting for my next film, Sunset. It's a coming of age thriller about a young woman set in 1910. Gábor is producing again, and I am working with the same writing team. We will probably make it using the same process ..."
Published February 25, 2016