The Road to Success of ‘Son of Saul’ Started in Cannes

Director Laszlo Nemes returns to the 69th Cannes Festival as a member of the jury in the main competition, just a year after he himself debuted in the very same section. After the recent outstanding success of Son of Saul, which resulted in an Oscar, a Golden Globe and another 50 prestigious awards and a further 40 nominations, it is safe to say that  the Hungarian film made the greatest impact among last year’s selection.

by András Oláh

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As the audience of the afternoon premiere of Son of Saul was witnessing the ordeal experienced by the Auschwitz Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer, there was a bidding war going on behind the scenes. The representatives of Sony Pictures Classics claimed that they would do everything in their power to get the film to the Oscars. The idea seemed far-fetched for the producers and the first-time director who were still just humbled to have been invited to Cannes. However, the concept became more and more real with the critical acclaim and as the developments over the following weeks unfolded. Son of Saul was sold to more than 50 countries before the festival had even ended and won the Grand Prix as well as the François Chalais and FIPRESCI prizes, while its sound designer Tamás Zányi received the Vulcan Award. Less then three weeks later, along with the film’s Hungarian premiere in June, the Hungarian National Film Fund announced that it would nominate Laszlo Nemes’s directorial debut as Hungary’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards.

The conquest of North America started in September, when critics voted ‘Son of Saul’ the best film of the intimate Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. A week later it received a Special Presentation at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival alongside several other future Academy Award nominees being premiered. It was also screened in the Special Events section of the New York Film Festival. By this time, Laszlo Nemes had signed with United Talent Agency in Hollywood and was already mentioned among the potential favourites of the Academy Awards in Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24: Director Laszlo Nemes, winner of the Grand Prix for his film 'Saul Fia', attends the Palme D'Or Winners press conference during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Franck Robichon - Pool/Getty Images)

Autumn saw a great deal of interest shown towards ‘Son of Saul’ in Europe.  After the film won a special jury prize at the 21st Sarajevo Film Festival it was introduced to the audience of the San Sebastián, London and Hamburg film festivals in September and October 2015. In November it won the Golden Pram for Best Film in Zagreb and Award for Best Director in Stockholm and was chosen as the Best Debut Feature at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London. Mátyás Erdély’s work was awarded at prestigious festivals dedicated to cinematography; he received the Golden Camera 300 at the Manaki Brothers Film Festival in Macedonia and the Bronze Frog at the Camerimage in Poland. In the meantime, the international distribution of Son of Saul had also started in Belgium and the Netherlandsafter the film’s introduction at the Film Fest Gent and the Leiden International Film Festival, respectively. Laszlo Nemes’s directorial debut was particularly successful in France, where in just two weeks it became the most viewed Hungarian film ever to be screened in front of 123 000 moviegoers. Son of Saul also sparked up a debate about whether the Holocaust can be
represented on film between Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary Shoah, and Georges Didi-Huberman, the renowned philosopher and art historian, who praised Laszlo Nemes’s intellectual approach to the Holocaust in an open letter, which was later published under the title Sortir du noir.

At the end of the year and at the beginning of the film award season overseas, ‘Son of Saul’ was nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards as well as for the Golden Globe for Best International Film and Best Foreign Language Film, respectively. It also made it onto the short list of nine films at the Academy Awards in the same category. On December 18, while the whole world was mesmerised by the premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, ‘Son of Saul’ had a limited release at two cinemas in New York and at two in Los Angeles. In their annual summaries, the key cinematic journals all mentioned the Cannes Grand Prix winner; Variety listed Laszlo Nemes among the ten directors to watch in 2015; the Hungarian film made it into the top ten on Sight & Sound’s 20 best films list; while among the daily newspapers The Guardian ranked it No. 1 on its list of best films released in the United States. The press also started to give out its awards, and film critics in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington chose ‘Son of Saul’ as the Best Foreign Language Film, while in New York it was picked as Best First Film.

Laszlo Nemes, of Hungary, accepts the award for best foreign language film for “Son of Saul” at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

On its road to success, the Hungarian film’s Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film was also an important landmark, as it was the first time a Hungarian film had ever been acknowledged by the Hollywood Foreign Press. A few days after the ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented their nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, which included Son of Saul, the first Hungarian film since István Szabó’s ‘Hanussen’ 27 years prior. By this time Son of Saul had screened in 180 cinemas in the United States.

The campaign that lasted until the Oscars wasn’t uneventful either, as Laszlo Nemes was nominated for the First-Time Feature Film Award by the Directors Guild of America and Mátyás Erdély won the Spotlight Award of the American Society of Cinematographers, tying with Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer for Macbeth. Just days before the Oscars, Son of Saul won Best Foreign Language Film at the Satellite Awards and Best International Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, while Tamás Zányi and his colleagues received the Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award in the Foreign Feature Film category. Finally, on February 28, ‘Son of Saul’ won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was the second time for Hungary to be awarded in this category, 34 years after István Szabó’s Mephisto.

The story of Son of Saul is not over yet though. In its home country, film critics praised not only the film itself, but also Laszlo Nemes, the leading actor Géza Röhrig and the works of Mátyás Erdély and Tamás Zányi. The Hungarian Film Awards also awarded the film a Special Prize. Laszlo Nemes’s work is the first Hungarian film to ever be nominated for a César Award in France, and it won the award for best foreign film inside the European Union at the Italian David di Donatello Award. During the first two months of this year, Son of Saul premiered in more than 20 countries around Europe, Asia and South America before arriving in Germany in March and the United Kingdom and Ireland in April. Meanwhile, Laszlo Nemes has been invited to the Cannes Festival again, but this time as a member of the jury in the main competition.

You can find all the articles of the latest Hungarian Film Magazine, here:

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