Unsung Auteurs: Laszlo Nemes

May 10, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Oscar winner and Son Of Saul helmer Laszlo Nemes.

When brilliant young Hungarian writer/director Laszlo Nemes won the Grand Prize at The Cannes Film Festival in 2015 with his first feature length film, Son Of Saul, and then achieved enormous critical acclaim before taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it would have been safe to presume that world cinema had a new hero. At the time of FilmInk’s 2015 interview with the director, we claimed that if he followed up this searing portrait of the inner workings of the Nazi death camps with something equally powerful, his name would soon be mentioned in the same breath as new world class directors like Andrey Zvyagintsev and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. In the eight years since his breakout debut, Nemes has disappointingly made only one other film with 2018’s impressive Sunset, and he has not quite risen to the heights that the beginning of his career might have suggested was a possibility. But despite having only two films to his credit, Laszlo Nemes is certainly an Unsung Auteur worthy of celebration.

Back in 2015, FilmInk asked Nemes how he felt upon winning the prize at Cannes. He gently pointed out that it got second best. “We won the Grand Jury Prize, but not the Palm d’Or,” Nemes told FilmInk on the phone from New York, where he was promoting the film for the upcoming awards season. “But it is enough.” Indeed.

Laszlo Nemes on the set of Son Of Saul.

Setting a film in the heart of the Holocaust is a big call, and it brings with it huge artistic responsibility. Nemes was in no doubt about the unfortunate continuing relevance of this topic. “We are in a genocidal age, and we are still in the age of Auschwitz,” the director told FilmInk. “I don’t think that mankind has learned that much. You just have to see the lack of interest in genocides or terrible world events today. People consider history as a sort of postcard, but history is here, and it might have surprises for us!”

FilmInk wondered if Nemes was consciously positioning his film in the context of other films on the topic? In particular, had he looked at Claude Lanzmann’s devastating nine-hour documentary, Shoah? “Yes, absolutely,” Nemes replied. “We watched Shoah repeatedly before we entered into production. It was very different from our film, of course, being a documentary.”

Laszlo Nemes picking up his Oscar.

Son Of Saul is technically innovative as well. The film is put together from a relatively small number of what look like continuous takes, with handicam shots giving a sense of a direct point of view. In some ways, it is almost like an extended chase sequence, as the camera remains focused on the film’s lead character, Saul, who is charged with ushering his fellow inmates into the gas chambers. “It has the frenzy that the concentration camps did have for the individual,” he said.

With so much of the action taking place off-screen, the film also requires the audience to mentally recreate the horrors of the relentless death machine: the concentration camp inmates are a cog in the process, furiously scrubbing away blood, disposing of bodies and so on, all under the imminent threat of death themselves. All this must have been uncomfortable, not to say depressing, to recreate. One wonders how even the extras coped with being manhandled and thrown onto piles of naked bodies, for example. “Everybody had the feeling of being in a real place, and they were all aware of the kind of film that we were making,” Nemes explained. “We chose to use those longer shots. It didn’t feel like a movie set; the lighting was integrated, and everyone was able to partake in a very realistic process. Everyone was very tense…they weren’t crying, but they were tense and concerned and alert. That was difficult, but everyone had a sense of mission about it too.”

A scene from Son Of Saul.

Nemes also wanted his principal actors to be aware but not to strive for any grand gestures, further stoking the film’s sense of immediacy. “I asked all my actors to read as much as possible about the period and the testimonies of the inmates, and then to try to forget it because they have to be in the middle of the world that we created and not be mental about that,” Nemes explained. The skillful use that Nemes makes of his depth of field (for example, picking out the hero from the fuzzy background scenes of Dantesque horrors) is clearly deliberate. “We spent years designing the look of the film. We wanted a shallow depth of field because we wanted to concentrate upon this one human being, Saul, and really rely on the audience to reconstruct the rest. It had to be hinted at rather than shown frontally.”

As Saul, the poet/actor, Geza Rohrig, was a vital piece of casting. He is in every shot, and his expressive face carries the emotional journey of the film. Nemes explains how he came to be involved. “I knew him from before, and that is why I wanted him to audition,” the director explains. “I didn’t know then for which role, but he had this sense of being obsessive and strong, which was important. He is very mental and very physical at the same time. He had the right mix.” FilmInk also wonders if there is a kind of flaw in Saul’s mission, if not his character. In some ways, his obsessions are selfish. Without wanting to go near spoilers, this is one of the subtle ambiguities of the film. “Yes, absolutely,” Nemes replies. “I leave it up to the audience to decide whether what Saul is trying to accomplish makes sense or not. I leave it to them. It is part of the journey.”

Laszlo Nemes on the set of Sunset.

In 2018, Laszlo Nemes proved that the creative daring of Son Of Saul was no mere one-off. Though lacking the obvious historical subject-driven immediacy of his debut, Sunset certainly employed the same brand of urgency and intensity in its structure. Once again employing a first-person-singular protagonist, Nemes this time ingeniously tracks the efforts of a young woman (a powerhouse performance from Juli Jakab) in 1913 Budapest investigating the mysterious death of her parents. Another dazzling combination of cinematic style and emotional resonance, Sunset proved that Laszlo Nemes was a filmmaker unafraid to push the boundaries and wade into dark territory. “I put myself at risk,” the director told Little White Lies. “I’m trying to push the boundaries of film language as I feel the grammar of cinema has come to sort of conventionalise a set of expression. I’m challenging that and I’m hoping to do so by making films like this. It’s always a challenge for me as a filmmaker and for my crew to bring about these visions in a very practical way. Also, on the level of the thought, it’s always a question, it’s always a risk, it’s always the constant dance on the edge of the abyss.

Laszlo Nemes should ideally have directed a lot more than just two films by now…but the two he’s given us certainly make him a director to cherish.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay,Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. Norton,Larysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.