A Prototype Against Conventional Beauty – interview with László Nemes

Working consciously against beauty following his own dogma – that was the main ambition of lászló Nemes, who is among the very few directors who can debute with a first feature (Son of Saul) in the Official Com- petition of the Cannes Film Festival. We had a thought-provoking talk with lászló Nemes about the magic of celluloid, important references and masters.


There is another important world famous Holocaust story in the Hungarian and European culture, the Nobel prize winning book, Fatelessness. reduced lan- guage, dispassion, certain perspective – your films are entitled with similar attributes. did it occur on your horizon when you were working on the script?

Fatelessness has always been a highly important book for me, so it is great to be compared with it, even though it was not among my conscious references. However, it served as an example to be brave enough to drop the conventional depicting of the Holocaust. In this sense it helped a lot to realise this film.

You lived in France and in the us from 1989 to 2003, but you come from a traditional filmmaker family. your closest colleagues are also from Hungary, but from many other countries too. Which language do you work in?

I work mostly in English or French. I made the major part of my studies abroad, so certain complex expres- sions just come to mind in the two above-mentioned languages. Especially when I am writing, but I like to use them for pitching too.

Maybe it is also because of this – that despite of the Hungarian traditions – your first feature is not a “so i came” like film, which would tell your lifestory, your milieu.

I am an outsider in this sense. My references are Antonioni and Kubrick.

They made several films about their present times though. Son of Saul is not like that.

The society we live in carries the weight of 80 years of unprocessed history. The traumas of the Holocaust – which are represented in Son of Saul – are here with us. This is why it is an important story for me. I hope that it makes us discuss about our past and the way it keeps haunting us. The story of my next film takes place in the past as well, and also highlights present problems – it is set in the 1910s, a coming of age story that is also a thriller, and ultimately deals with the end of a civilization.

And what other references did you have?

Come and See by Elem Klimov, certainly. It is a com- pletely different film, but there is a similar franticness, a way the protagonist is being followed by the camera – this influenced me. Throughout the film, a journey through a space of uncertainty, the viewer is trans- ported into a world of dangers with this boy who tries to survive.

We worked consciously against beauty. All the aes- theticising approaches of former Holocaust films served as counterexamples. We made our own “dogma” with my director of photography, Mátyás Erdély. Hand-held camera, the importance of Point of View (POV) shots, the recurring use of the same lens, no classic film-style dramatization: these were a few of our founding principles. We still have the piece of paper we wrote this on.

We considered this film as a prototype with certain rules. The point-of-view and how we followed the pro- tagonist organised both the dramaturgy and the vi- sual atmosphere of it. We used only a limited number of visual openings: as the main character does not watch the horrors unfold, only passes them by, we would not clearly reveal those, but would open onto a very subjective realm – everything in connection with the boy Saul wants to bury. The rhythm was a big question as well, already when we started to figure out the scenes with Mátyás Erdély and editor Matthieu Taponier. We wanted to find the right tempo for it with the right combination of POV shots and close-ups. The result is a bit like a sea snake, which coils forward in its own strange distinct pace.

You have expressed your commitment to the 35mm film material many times. The Cannes Film Festival also supports you in it, as they will screen Son of Saul on 35mm too. What is the significance of celluloid?

The digital image is a regressive, deceitful technology. With film, the combination of darkness and projected image induces in the viewer a physical reaction, which is absent from digital projection. In a sense, projected physical film hypnotizes the viewer. On the side of ac- quisition, because of the incredible amount of shot raw material, the time and significance of post-production has disproportionately grown. The major part of pro- duction is IT, which is good for projector and camera manufacturers, certain post-production studios, but at the end of the road the audiences get less value for their money, as you cannot compare film and digital in terms of texture, resolution, depth, color rendition and latitude. It is absolutely inexplicable why so many di- rectors accept this and why they don’t fight more for 35mm. It is harder to work on film – but so much more rewarding. A few of us still fight against television mentality and aesthetics entirely taking over filmmak- ing and the experimental attitudes attached to it.

During shooting the existence of film provides disci- pline and a sense of urgency that the digital technol- ogy is unable to convey, as it is based on virtuality and endlessness. With video, there is no more re- hearsal, which means that all rehearsal is a take! In the case of celluloid, as raw stock is limited and valu- able, the entire crew has to perform well for a limited number of occasions. You can feel the electric atmos- phere during the film shoot, and I believe you can get better performance out of actors this way. The limited amount of film stock reflects our own fragility and disappearance, and the use of it is a constant struggle against the elements. For me, that what makes film- making valuable – to be on the edge and to take risks.

On the other hand shooting on digital drives results in the inflation of shots and weakens the director. One is tempted to record everything from every angle. This attitude postpones the entire decision making process into the editing room, degrading the director to a con- tent editor. I personally feel the magic of the physical, chemical processing of film. There is a ceremony in it – creating something from nothing. The image on the monitor is not the image you will get on the screen. This is why I am interested in filmmaking.

When Thierry Frémaux, the director of Cannes International Film Festival announced that Son of Saul is in the Official Competition, he mentioned you as a protege of béla Tarr.

Béla doesn’t really like it when I talk about him, but sometimes I have to. It’s a much better way to learn filmmaking from an experienced master instead of playing among each other in a less professional way. I worked with Béla Tarr for two years on his film The Man from London. It was a difficult project full of challenges – in an international cast and crew, with a constant fight with the elements. I learnt from him that you should not take no for an answer. You should always measure what you can and what you cannot accept. As a director you are never allowed to accept bad compromises.


You spent 6 months in paris thanks to the Cinéfonda- tion résidence programme, writing son of saul there. What was that experience like?

Fortunately, I already had my treatment when I was selected for this program, so I had the opportunity to write the script in Paris. At the Résidence there is no real framework. You are treated as a grown-up: you get money, you have a desk and a room, and there is no control. You do whatever you want. If I hadn’t had so many wasted years at universities, I wouldn’t have been able to handle this kind of freedom.

I think that’s the best way to be there, to have the [treatment] ready with a strong concept, which you can elaborate and develop. I made my own schedule, which was based on finishing one scene each day. It could be just 2 lines or 3 pages long, it didn’t matter.

The program itself is well conceived. I had the chance to meet inspiring people, especially film directors, and living in Paris is great anyway. But above all, if you participate, the project will get a kind of stamp which will be on it ever after. The people at Cinéfondation and at the Cannes film festival will follow your project and your entire career.

The Hungarian National Film Fund takes efforts to participate in the development of the supported project. Was it comfortable for you?

They supported the project from the very beginning. It was part of the game that the development team of the HNFF worked with us, led by Réka Divinyi and our personal consultant, Tamás Beregi. They handled the script in a very constructive way, always trying to find ways to make it better. It was a very empathic team work, they did not want to push me in other directions, and they fully respected the material.

From the very beginning of the project there’s beenan international attention for it. It is a surprise though that the film was not an international co-production.

It was not a co-production, since our international partners were not able to secure financial support for it. Most of the time the decision makers considered it too risky for a first feature director and had doubts about the feasability of the project.

Would the film have been different if you could have worked in a co-production?

We’re in the process of writing a first draft and the project is being submitted to the Hungarian Film Fund’s development fund.

Read the 2015 Cannes issue!

Read the 2015 Cannes issue!

We have already started thinking and working on it, prepare it, both produc tion–wise and mentally. My creative team (screenwri- ters Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier, DOP Mátyás Erdély, casting director Eva Zabezsinszkij among others) is fully assembled and the producers at Laokoon Filmgroup have already started implementing the financing strategies. I would like to aim for a shooting within a year and a half – we will see whether there will be co-production opportunities.

by Dániel Deák

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