Son of Saul is a harrowing film that follows the personal journey of a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz concentration camp, Saul Auslaender, who is clearing dead bodies out of a gas chamber when he comes across the body of a boy - whom he identifies as his son. Director László Nemes takes the viewer on Saul's manic quest to find a way to bury the body of the boy with the proper Jewish ceremonies, rather than have it burnt to ashes in the crematorium along with all the other corpses.
"The idea came from the Scrolls of Auschwitz that were written by the Sonderkommando in 1944," said Nemes about the group of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau who were forced to kill fellow inmates and then dispose of their bodies. Saul - played by actor Géza Röhrig, is one of the Sonderkommando. "The human experience in so-called historic events is something very interesting to me," he said during a Q&A session with LAWAC on Wednesday, February 10th. He wanted to show "the Holocaust from an internal point of view."
Throughout the film's entirety, Nemes keeps his camera tightly focused on the face of the main character, Saul, while in the background we hear the sounds and see blurry shots of the industrial killing machine in which he exists. Guard dogs bark, German soldiers shout out orders, inmates locked into the gas chambers bang on the inside of the doors until they die. Nemes wanted the audience to feel like they were "sharing space and time with the main character.... in an organic, visceral way from the inside." Nemes said he used this technique to "link the human face to the human experience." By narrowing the field of vision, "we wanted to rely on the imagination of the viewer," said Nemes. "In the moral scope of what's going on in the background, it has to be a personal journey," said Nemes. "Cinema is capable of doing that."
Nemes worked for 10 years to make the film - he said the casting alone took two years. The lead character, Géza Röhrig, was not initially considered for the role of Saul, but that changed. "He had this energy about him that made it rather obvious that he had 'Saul' in him," he said, "His obsession...there are a lot of things going on in his head." For the other characters Nemes said he was looking for "not famous faces" for the film and that the cast is from a range of countries including Poland and Germany. The actors lost an average of 30-40 pounds for their prisoner roles. "Everybody was a little bit off balance," said Nemes.
Director László Nemes & Terry McCarthy
Son of Saul is Nemes' first feature length film. For Nemes, it was a personal journey. Members of his own family were deported from Hungary during the Holocaust. "The people who were deported in my family, never came back," he said, adding that he didn't want to make a film about survival. "I wanted to in a way speak about the dignity of the dead and the dying."