Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes has the distinction of being the only first-time feature director to have a movie in the main Competition at Cannes this year. He’s not exactly a stranger to Cannes, though. Son Of Saul, his intense Holocaust drama, got its first recognition from the organization when it was at script stage. Nemes’ project was earlier selected for the Résidence program which is overseen by the Cannes Cinéfondation to help filmmakers hone their first or second projects.
Nemes, who spent a portion of his teens growing up in Paris, originally wanted to make Son Of Saul as a French film, but “had trouble finding the right framework,” he tells me. So, he took the project back to Hungary and decided to make it on a lower budget with support from the Hungarian Film Fund. “We tried to raise money abroad, but it seemed the subject matter and approach was too risky.”
The subject is Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from Auschwitz in 1944 who were forced to assist the Nazis by cremating the bodies of the dead. Set over a day and a half, the film closely follows Saul (played by New York-based poet Geza Rohrig) as he discovers the corpse of a boy he believes is his young son. As the other Sonderkommando plan a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: find a rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial.
The film is in a way personal for Nemes. “The stories were in our family and I had a feeling that people disappeared into this black hole in the past. It infused itself into my childhood.” But, he wanted his take on the subject matter to stand out. “I was very disappointed by the usual approach of the so-called Holocaust movies that I saw. I wanted to bring the story to the level of one person and scale it in a very narrow way… I didn’t want to approach it from the outside, but to show it from the inside and follow one main character.” The tight camerawork that takes viewers inside the devastating hell of Auschwitz, along with just about everything else about the film, has been met with glowing praise from the first press screening in Cannes, all hailing an extraordinary new talent. Its official Competition screening is later this afternoon.
Paris-based FilmsDistribution is handling Son Of Saul internationally and company co-founder Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, who has a strong eye for talent, praises the esthetic quality of the film, especially with regard to filming the death camps. “Since maybe Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog, this is the first time I’ve seen something new… It’s mind-blowing. It’s like when I saw Gaspar Noé’s first movie, Seul Contre Tous and you say, ‘Wow this guy is something.’ He’s chosen his own path since, but when you see Seul Contre Tous, you know there’s a director being born. I got the same feeling watching Son Of Saul. It’s a slap in the face. You see this movie and you say ‘Wow!’ ”
Some have suggested potential controversy; Nemes told the New York Times there was a degree of “suspicion” during interviews he’s done in Hungary. But the director doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a respectful movie,” he tells me. “I’m happy if people talk about it as a film, but also about what happened on this continent that still has left its marks even on today’s life.”
Nemes’ other credits include working with Bela Tarr, the lauded Hungarian filmmaker of such art house fare as The Turin Horse and The Man From London. He cites Elem Klimov’s 1985 Russian WWII film, Come And See, as one of his favorites. The inspiration in Son Of Saul has been noted in the early and glowing critiques. His preferred cinema is that in which “the director has a strong point of view and also in which the point of view is not that far from the possibility of a human being. I like when films are thought out before the shoot, and not only assembled in the editing room.” Among his heroes are Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni and more recently Paul Thomas Anderson.
While students of the Cinéfondation usually get attention from the Cannes Film Festival, ending up in Competition “is a big leap,” Nemes says. Landing in the main section “was an earthquake in a sense. It’s a very personal movie and it’s funny to be thrown into this vortex from one day to the next,” Nemes told me about 10 days ahead of the proceedings. “I’m looking forward to it and also a little bit terrified.”
Nemes will next work on a script he’s written, Sunset, which is set in 1910 Budapest. He’s also hoping to work in France in the future, “and if possible, in the U.S.”