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Laszlo Nemes Chats About Cannes-Winning ‘Son of Saul’ at Jerusalem Film Festival

JERUSALEM– Laszlo Nemes, whose directorial debut “Son of Saul” won Cannes’s Grand Prize, attended the Jerusalem film festival to participate in the Sam Spiegel Film Lab’s Jury and took the opportunity to chat about his movie’s journey from financing to premiering it at the festival, as well as his views on the European film scene.

“Concentration camps were a mix of organization and chaos and that was our approach for this film,” said Nemes, who expresses a blend of determination, strength and humility. “Everybody came to the shoot with the Holocaust in mind. I had a lot of discussions with the actors, I told them to ban this feeling of self-pity, to bring (their act) down, do less. In a way it’s the most primitive way of directing.”

There has been countless movies about the Holocaust but Nemes says none truthfully “conveyed the experience of the camps, its limitations, its chaos, what it meant to be a human being living in the camps.”

“I wanted to make a film about the Shoah, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to stick with one character but I needed an angle. After two or three years, the sentence came (…) it had to be about a member of the commando who was burning his own people,” explained the helmer.

Being a directorial debut and a Holocaust movie, “Son of Saul” proved highly challenging to finance. The Hungarian film fund was its only backer. “There is a structural resistance to risk-taking. I don’t know why the Hungarian film fund financed it. I found the error in the machine. Nobody wanted it. Not the French, not the Israelis, not the Germans, the Austrians they fled. Everytime we would go somewhere, people were like “OK you’re still on this project?!” I could read in their eyes “You’re never going to make this film, obviously.”

Although he attended the Cannes’ Cinefondation residence with the project, Nemes says didn’t initially think “Son of Saul” was a movie for Cannes. “Berlin didn’t want to take the film in competition, Cannes wanted it but didn’t tell us where it would be until the very end. I had just spent five months on the sound and it seemed strange to get this kind of exposure and be under the palm trees after being so remote about everything. But the movie found its place at the festival, by screening early and in the afternoon. It all fell into place,” Nemes remembers.

In spit of its modest budget, the casting of “Son of Saul” was international, spanning from Germany to Poland, Austria and Israel. Nemes wanted fresh faces, “people who could be imagined as members of this special group,” rather than well-known actors. The helmer said he had many options for the lead role but decided to approach Géza Röhrig, a “poet living in New York who used to be an underground figure in the Budapest rock scene.” Nemes admits it felt “risky” to cast Röhrig but understood that it wouldn’t be right to have a movie star play that part.

Nemes claims the only thing he couldn’t comprise on to make “Son of Saul” was shooting in 35 millimeters.

“It’s directors’ choice to shoot on film. It’s about chemicals…It’s a different experience; you feel the grains moving (…) Pixels are dead. Producers are building this myth around digital being less expensive than film but it doesn’t make sense to me,” Nemes argues.

Since Cannes, Nemes has been approached by a number of U.S. agents and will soon sign with one. Although he has been offered a number of U.S. projects, he’s still committed to follow up “Son of Saul” with another Hungarian film, a 1910-set thriller set in Budapest, which he said will likely be backed again by the Hungarian Film Fund.

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