Young and emerging artists often strive to renew their genre with innovative ways of working. It’s less common to see these efforts succeed, and succeed so resoundingly they produce almost immediate and global recognition. With Son of Saul we have witnessed a remarkable exception, where talent, hard work, and luck have combined to produce something extraordinary.
text by Géza Csákvári
László Nemes has become a record breaker in Hungarian film history with his debut feature Son of Saul. Last year, he made it into the official competition programme of the Cannes Film Festival as the first Hungarian first-feature filmmaker after a 46-year hiatus. While still at Cannes, he went on to receive the Grand Prix du Jury, led by Joel and Ethan Coen. Son of Saul has gone on become the first Hungarian film to win the second most important award of Cannes. (In 1984, fellow Hungarian Márta Mészáros won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury award for her film Diary for My Children, only slightly less prestigious than the Grand Prix of the Jury which was introduced in 1995). László Nemes has received the most significant film award since the end of the communist regime. A moment to be genuinely proud of.
But this is only the beginning of the journey for Son of Saul. It has since become the most awarded Hungarian film overseas. After its American premiere in Toronto and other successful festival screenings, the American distributor, Sony Classics carefully started building the film’s international campaign. The company hasn’t been doing anything special other than making sure that all the voting members of the Academy see Son of Saul. The rest depends on the film.
The hopes are indeed high. Of course, as we are often reminded, there is no direct connection between certain prizes and awards, but it is definitely a promising sign that, not only was Nemes nominated for the first ever Golden Globe award in Hungarian history, but on the 10th of January he also received it for the Best Foreign Film. A few days after that came the Oscar nomination. Even if Son of Saul does not receive an Academy Award, the nomination alone is highly significant, since the last time Hungary was considered was with István Szabó’s Hanussen some 29 years ago. Even more important, is that both the industry and cinéphile community around the world are talking about a debut feature from a small country like Hungary. They are fascinated by a film which is both a work of art and also, with an innovative visualisation, depicts the Holocaust in a way that no fiction film has done before.
The triumph of Son of Saul is like a cinematic fairytale, and the success story of the director has been like a dream, too. László Nemes certainly did not choose an easy route to become director. Even in Cannes, he pointed out more than once that Son of Saul is a Hungarian film. Not because he insisted on it being made in Hungary, but to highlight the fact that everywhere else he had sought funding had rejected him, asserting his concept was not feasible. Germany, France and even the Israeli National Fund rejected to grant financial support for Son of Saul. Only the Hungarian Film Fund was brave enough to support the film with 321 million HUF (approx. €1,020,000). The complete budget was 450 million HUF (approx. €1,430,000), which made it one of the ’cheapest’ Holocaust films of all time. By way of comparison, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s list had a budget of 22 million dollars, and another Hungarian production, Lajos Koltai’s Fateless was made out of 3 billion HUF (approx. € 9,500,000) – almost seven times the budget for Son of Saul.)
Son of Saul is Hungary’s most valuable contemporary cultural export. To date, more than 80 countries have bought the screening rights. In retrospect, it is even more baffling why the international investors hadn’t seen its potential. The director suggested that they just didn’t understand that it is still important or relevant to change the dogma of a film set in 1944. At the same time, it’s undeniable, the film has been celebrated around the whole world not only because of its original view on the topic, but also because of its unique cinematic realisation.
Most so-called Holocaust dramas talk first of all about survival, about the lucky minority who miraculously survived the Second World War and the death camps. László Nemes has a very strong opinion about that; according to him, almost all previous Holocaust films have distorted history. He thinks that several European countries – including Germany – need to face the cruel reality of their past, because what they consider a reality right now is only a rose-tinted version of what really happened.
A central element of this innovation is that no previous film (with the epic exception of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoa) has been made about the Sonderkommando, a German euphemism for “special unit” referring to the Jewish prisoners forced to dispose of gas chamber victims. The main character, Saul – played by Géza Röhrig – doesn’t fight to survive the horror (although there are several characters who do). One cannot easily imagine a fate more tragic than his. Being a member of the Sonderkommando at Birkenau had its advantages – his life conditions were better than other prisoners, he received some food and alcohol – but he had to haul the bodies of murdered people all day long. The members of the Sonderkommando had become tools in mass murder before they themselves were also liquidated. László Nemes doesn’t care about the “action” or the visualisation of brutality, he’s more interested in what’s happening inside of a person’s soul. And to do that, he operates with a brave visual concept; the camera only follows Saul. Sometimes we see what he sees, sometimes we are right behind his neck, as the director notes; “the camera is with him, and then it opens up rhythmically.”
Based on the formula, it’s not obvious whether the director has been inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, but looking at his artistic vocation, the similarity is almost trivial, every piece is in its “right place”. “We are not geniuses, we just worked a lot”, said László Nemes answering a question after his Oscar nomination about how a first feature director had come so far so quickly. Of course, he needed a little bit of luck, but the fact is, this is a profoundly moving and provocative film which richly deserves the recognition it is receiving.
You can also read this article in World of Young Cinema: