‘Son of Saul’ director Laszlo Nemes on bringing harrowing Holocaust story to the screen (Podcast)

son of saul geza rohrig

The directors branch of the academy has a long history of recognizing foreign filmmakers. Hungarian helmer Laszlo Nemes could be the latest in a line dating back to Federico Fellinni and Ingmar Bergman for his debut film “Son of Saul.” His Holocaust drama focuses on a Jewish prisoner (Geza Rohrig) who tries to give a proper burial to a young boy he takes to be his son. In our exclusive audio chat (listen below), Nemes talks candidly about the making of the film, which is a strong contender for the Foreign Language Film Oscar (it just received an Indie Spirit nomination for Best International Film).

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Nemes was attracted to bringing the seldom-told story of the Sonderkommandos to the screen. As he explains, these were “the workers chosen for their physical ability and forced to work in the crematorium, to make the whole machinery of killing in Auschwitz work. These people — a few hundred, a few thousand at some point — were isolated from the rest of the camp, they were better fed, better clothed, but they knew they would be liquidated, and usually they were.”

The Hungarian-born filmmaker says the idea was born from documents and journals written by the Sonderkommandos about their experiences. “I wanted to find a way, in cinematic terms, to transport the viewer to the here-and-now, as much as I was transported to the here-and-now of the extermination as I was reading these texts.”

Rather than viewing the events through a broad spectrum, Nemes felt his purpose would be better served by focusing on one man. “We wanted an immersive film. We wanted to be with one character, because one human being is the reference point that can be understood by another human being, who is the viewer. Our main character is the reference, the measure of everything that is going on around him, and we cannot represent the whole extermination because by frontally showing the camp and illustrating, you only reduce the scope of it.”

Nemes won the Grand Prize of the Jury at this years Cannes Film Festival, where “Son of Saul” also competed for the Palme d’Or.

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Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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