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10 Directors to Watch: Laszlo Nemes Innovates With Immersive Auschwitz Drama ‘Son of Saul’

Hungarian director apprenticed under the great Bela Tarr, applying what he learned to the Oscar-shortlisted Holocaust drama.

10 Directors to Watch
Portrait: Courtesy of Lenke Szilagyi

A quarter century passed between the home movies Laszlo Nemes made as a teenager and the selection of his feature debut, “Son of Saul,” to represent Hungary at the Oscars.

“You have to live, and you have to find your voice,” says the Budapest-born helmer, who studied international relations, history and political science in Paris, followed by a year at NYU Tisch.

Frustrated with film school, he called Hungarian directing legend Bela Tarr, who was in pre-production on “The Man From London,” which he planned to shoot in France. “I speak French and English, and I offered my services,” says Nemes, whom Tarr hired to work as his assistant director.

“As a young filmmaker you have to be humble and learn from others,” says Nemes, who discovered the importance of preparation — casting, location scouting, research — and how a director interacts with every member of his crew. “It became clear that the technical aspects are not important if you don’t know what to say with those tools. The content is first and foremost, not the other way around.”

That insight helped Nemes solve the dilemma of his debut, which was inspired by eye-witness accounts from Auschwitz — specifically those of the Sonderkommando, or Jewish prisoners whom the Nazis forced to work the gas chambers. For years, Nemes grappled with how to tell this story, or even what story to tell.

“We didn’t want to make a ‘best of’ the Sonderkommando,” says Nemes, who settled on a simple, archetypal scenario centered around a man trying to bury a dead child. “I think that’s the only story that a concentration camp can tolerate.” Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, Nemes developed his style — at once unflinchingly realistic and formally rigorous, framed in the relatively narrow Academy aspect ratio — to mirror his protagonist’s confusion and fear.

“My next film is going to be true anamorphic widescreen,” says Nemes. The upcoming thriller, set in Budapest before World War I, will center on a young female protagonist. “It’s about the forces underneath the destruction of civilization. It’s going to be very different.”

Age: 38
Influences: Bela Tarr, Stanley Kubrick
Agency: UTA