Five days to go before the 88th annual Academy Awards and my interviewee, producer Gábor Sipos, along with the whole crew that is “traumatized in a very positive way,” have high hopes of seeing their film win the Academy Award that would be only the second in Hungarian film history.
Out of pure curiosity, I did a Google search for ’Son of Saul’, the title of the movie that many of us consider be the front-runner for this year’s Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Over 42 million results came up, nearly as many as when you type ‘Holocaust.’ Flabbergasted, I had a go with the Hungarian title (Saul Fia) too, only to find another 1,960,000 results. Five days to go before the 88th annual Academy Awards and my interviewee, producer Gábor Sipos, along with the whole crew that is “traumatized in a very positive way,” have high hopes of seeing their film win the Academy Award that would be only the second in Hungarian film history (see box). “There’s a good vibe within the team, we are handling the stress quite well, but I’m far too superstitious to say another word, not a single one,” Sipos answers my questions on the odds of winning the Oscar and how it feels to be so close. László Nemes, the film’s 38-old director has already reached new heights, receiving Hungary’s first Golden Globe on January 10. No one expected such an achievement from a first-time feature director, who chose an unknown actor to star his movie that reforms the Holocaust film genre. “We were convinced he can realize the script, as he wanted to” notes Sipos, who, along with his partner at the Budapest-based Laokoon Film, producer Gábor Rajna, read the script, co-written by Nemes and Clara Royer, in 2012. They wrote the story of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, who was forced to cremate the bodies of fellow Jewish prisoners, gassed by the Nazis, shockingly original. “By the time we came onboard, Nemes had already tried to find financing in France, where he grew up. He’d had no luck. Together, we turned to potential film-funding bodies in Israel and Germany too, but our requests were rejected everywhere as “too risky”, until the Hungarian National Film Fund agreed to back the film. Approximately 1 million of the 1.5 million EUR budget came from them, complete with an additional support from the Hungarian State’s tax rebate,” Sipos sums up the long money-raising process, filling the last financial gap from the Claims Conference in New York, a global organization that works to secure compensation and restitution for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims. According to the producer, the casting process was also long and complex. “The film took five months of sound design, where human voices in eight languages (Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish, French, Greek and Slovak) were recorded and attached to the original recording of the production. Nemes insisted on working with actors of different nationalities, so they would speak their mother language. It was essential we had this Babel of expressions, the mixture of whispers, cries and shouts in the gas chambers and the constant hisses and clanks of the crematorium. Sound designer Tamás Zányi kept adding layers, up to the point that was almost overwhelming.”
Break away from codes
As Nemes highlighted in an interview, this film was born out of the frustration. “We were tired of the usual representation of the Holocaust. We were just sick of it,” he said, explaining why he wanted to craft a holocaust film as raw and unnerving as possible. “Nemes didn’t want to make just another film about the Holocaust, a Disneyfied, sugarcoated one, the kind that is often told about survivors. Because for the vast majority, it wasn't about surviving. The historical truth is that two out of three Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in Europe,” Sipos adds. To make the audience descent into hell, Nemes asked Hungarian designer, architect László Rajk to transform an old warehouse of a former military base in the outskirts of Budapest, into a gas chamber. (Scenes depicting the Polish rivers Vistula or Sola, where the ashes of the victims were dumped, were shot at the Danube, also close to Budapest.) Rajk had designed the permanent Hungarian exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and he made the film set perfect for Mátyás Erdély’s unusual camera work. “Executed with a hand-held camera, cinematography is one of the film’s major assets,” most critics state. The film uses very long and out-of-focus shots: the 107-minute film consists of no more than 85 shots, none of which are longer than four minutes, while normally one film features some 400 shots. “And the director was super-meticulous about every single shot — he had the whole film planned to the last image, something Rajnai and I admired about him right from the start,” Sipos adds. “We wanted to stick to one character, one individual that is Saul, caught in the middle of an extermination machine, a death factory, and we watch everything from behind his shoulders. If he is pushed down to the ground, we go down with him to the ground, if he goes to the water, we go to the water with him.” The producer reveals that the actor playing Saul, Géza Röhrig, was in fact invited to the audition on a whim. “He is a friend of the director, a Hungarian poet and former teacher, who lives in Brooklyn. He came for a supporting role, but the more we watched him in action, the more we felt we had found Saul.”
To and from Cannes
The intention was to first launch Son of Saul in Berlin, but the Berlinale did not want to give it a competition slot. As they insisted on the film premiering in competition at a major festival, when failing with Berlin they decided to go to Cannes - which resulted in great success. Not only was the film invited to be part of the official competition, but it also received the Grand Prix, the festival's second-highest award. Son of Saul went on screen at every major film festival in Europe, Canada and the U.S., racking up 38 awards to date. The film's distribution rights have been sold worldwide, with international rights handled by Paris-based Films Distribution. Released in Hungary by Mozinet on June 11, 2015, Son of Saul has been seen by 170 thousand people in Hungarian cinemas and has become the most successful Hungarian film of the past five years, currently being screened in 37 cinemas around the country. In the U.S., Sony Pictures Classics introduced it on December 18. World wide ticket sales are now more than USD 2 million, already exceeding the film’s budget. According to Sipos, one big reason for these successes is that Son of Saul is able to connect with the young audiance. “At one of the special screenings we attended, a schoolgirl said the film reminded her of a video game – and indeed, the effect of this movie is not dissimilar to that of a third-person video game. We are happy to acknowledge that in Hungary free screenings for secondary school students will soon start at the Uránia National Film Theatre.” “Maybe if I can make it less trendy for Hungarian schoolboys and schoolgirls at the age of 16, 17 and 18 to be neo-Nazis, then I will have succeeded a little bit,” Nemes stressed not long ago. “It’s tremendously important to show this film to the world. Survivors are dying, so we're losing the living link to what happened. Hungary has not come to terms with the destruction of its Jews. Not only were the Jews murdered in 1944 but also the loss has not been understood. I think if we want to heal, if we want to be healed, we have to admit the Holocaust for what it is. By making this film, I tried to give the dignity back to the dead and the dying. I don't think I ever lost from my aim the fact that I was speaking about the destruction of the European Jews. It's in my blood. I will leave a trace for my family that were scattered into the Polish rivers.” Son of Saul showed us the monster that really exists within human beings. It is a warning.
Son of Saul is set over the course of a day and a half on 6 and 7 October 1944. In the horror of Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people (“pieces,” as the SS guards call them) finds moral survival in trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. With the Sonderkommando men planning a rebellion, Saul vows that he will save the child’s body from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper burial.
Gábor Sipos and Gábor Rajna are fast-rising producers, heading Laokoon Filmgroup along with Judit Stalter. Their company produces commercials and films for both cinema and television, for domestic and international clients alike. Credits to their names include Berlinale success Happy New Life and HBO’s Golden Life It is certain that they will continue work with László Nemes’s next film Sunset.
Academy award history for Hungarian entries in Foreign Language Film cathegories
SON OF SAUL (2015, ? )
HANUSSEN (1988, Nominee)
COLONEL REDL (1985, Nominee)
JOB'S REVOLT (1983, Nominee)
MEPHISTO (1981, Winner)
CONFIDENCE (1980, Nominee)
HUNGARIANS (1978, Nominee)
CATS' PLAY (1974, Nominee)
THE BOYS OF PAUL STREET (1968, Nominee)