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Son of Saul (2015) Poster

(2015)

Trivia

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During the preparation, director László Nemes, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and production designer László Rajk made a pledge to stick to certain rules, or a "dogma", which included:
  • The film cannot look beautiful.
  • The film cannot look appealing.
  • We cannot make a horror film.
  • Staying with Saul means not going beyond his own field of vision, hearing, or presence.
  • The camera is his companion, it stays with him throughout this hell.
Shot entirely with a 40mm lens to achieve a portrait-like narrow field of vision.
Shot in 28 days.
Shot in the now unusual Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1 to achieve a portrait-like narrow field of vision and to be close to the aspect ratio used in the 40s.
Director László Nemes cited Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) as an inspiration for his film.
The film took five months of sound design, where human voices in eight languages were recorded and attached to the original recording of the production. Sound designer Tamás Zányi described the sound in the film "as a sort of acoustic counterpoint to the intentionally narrowed imagery".
Dario Gabbai, the last known survivor of the Sonderkommandos, saw the film and praised it. He lives in Los Angeles, California since 1951.
Claude Lanzmann, the acclaimed director of Shoah (1985) and other documentaries about the Holocaust, praised the film. Speaking to The New York Times, he said, "It's a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando. It's not at all melodramatic. It's done with a very great modesty."
The filmmakers insisted on getting the film premiere in competition at a major festival. After failing to get the Berlin competition, although they could have premiered it in a different section, they decided to skip the festival and go for Cannes instead - which resulted in large success.
The film follows the same stylistic approach as László Nemes' first and most successful short film With a Little Patience (2007). In the short, the camera follows a woman proceed with her daily work routine with a very narrow focus and vision, until she walks up to a window and sees a group of Jewish prisoners stripped down by Sonderkommando prisoners and SS officers. The short is available online.
The outside scenes were shot only with natural light.
The 107-minute film consists of 85 shots, none of which are longer than four minutes.
Out of a whim, director László Nemes invited his friend Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian poet living in Brooklyn, to audition for a supporting role in the film. Just as the filmmakers were about to cast another actor as Saul, however, they found Röhrig perfect for the lead role. Röhrig didn't act on camera since the 1980s and this is his feature film debut.
Director László Nemes, who grew up in Paris, originally conceived the film as a French film with a French protagonist. It was also planned as an international co-production, but potential partners in France, Israel, Germany and Austria turned the project down because it was regarded as too risky. Ultimately the EUR1.5 million budget was raised via the Hungarian Film Fund (70%), tax rebates by the Hungarian State (25%) and additional support from the Claims Conference in New York (5%).
Another feature film about the Sonderkommandos in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp is Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone (2001), also based in part on "Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account" by witness Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian-speaking Jewish doctor from Romania forced to work in Auschwitz, as was this film.
In Hungary the film was released on 46 screens and had about 100,000 admissions in 2015, a record for an independent film there. After it was nominated for an Academy Award, it was released on up to 45 screens again and the audience grew further. After 66 weeks in release, the final box-office (on Sept.11, 2016) was $1,059,297 million, which is a number usually only Hollywood blockbusters achieve in Hungary.
The name of the fictitious main character Saul Ausländer has many connotations. "Saul" is a well-known biblical name, while "Ausländer" is a Jewish name similar to the name of acclaimed Israeli historian and Third Reich expert Saul Friedländer. "Ausländer" is also a common word in the German language and means 'foreigner'.
In February 2016, the New Yorker reported that before, during, and after the film production, lead actor Géza Röhrig was employed as a shomer in a funeral home in Manhattan, New York City. In Jewish funeral ritual, a shomer is a person who sits with a body so that it is not left alone before the funeral. Röhrig's job also included participating in the ritual washing of the bodies before burial. The article said that when Röhrig started this job in 2001, his salary was $10.00 an hour.
Elie Wiesel, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, praised the film. The Romanian-born Holocaust survivor was deported in 1944 with his family to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald.
The first Hungarian feature film to win the Golden Globe award for 'Best Foreign Language Film'.
Philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman wrote a 25-page long open letter to director László Nemes praising the film. It begins: "Your film, 'Son of Saul', is a monster. A necessary, coherent, beneficial, innocent monster." The letter has been published in the French book "Sortir du noir".
The film's historical consultant Dr. Zoltán Vági wrote that Hungary is still in denial about the former alliance and collaboration with Nazi Germany. Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, approximately 437,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish ethnicity were deported with 147 trains, mainly to the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The majority of them were unfit for slave labor: Elderly and disabled people, women and more than 100,000 children were killed in gas chambers immediately after arriving, while their possessions (incl. gold teeth) were stolen by the Germans. Many more died in the camp over the next few months. The deportation was mainly organized and executed by the Hungarian authorities themselves. Hungary set a European 'record' by deporting 437,000 Jews to certain death within only eight weeks. The Hungarian gendarmes' devotion to this cause surprised even Nazi organizer Adolf Eichmann, who only needed to supervise the operation with 20 officers and a staff of 100, including drivers and cooks.
Production designer László Rajk re-created the crematorium from the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in an old warehouse near Budapest, Hungary. Other sources write that a 1930s former Soviet military base in Budapest was the main location. Scenes depicting the Polish rivers Vistula or Sola, where the ashes of the gassing victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau were dumped, were shot at the Danube river close to Budapest.
Steven Spielberg told director László Nemes that Son of Saul (2015) greatly contributed to the collective memory of the Holocaust and that he hadn't expected that it would take so long after Schindler's List (1993) to make such a film. [Daily Herald, 2016]
The music score by László Melis is intentionally kept so subtle that viewers won't even notice it.
Historians such as Zoltán Vági, Gideon Greif and Philippe Mesnard were consulted in the making of the film. Vági in particular provided a constant supervision of the production, according to Nemes, "from checking the places where the numbers were to constructing the sets, how the paint would look, where the lighting would be, what were the bulbs and those kind of things."
Imre Kertész, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, praised the film. The Holocaust survivor was deported with other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald.
The second Hungarian feature film to win the Academy Award for 'Best Foreign Language Film', the first being Mephisto (1981) 34 years earlier. It was the 9th Hungarian feature film to be nominated in this category.
The film's many historical sources included the personal accounts of Schlomo Venezia and Filip Müller, the records of Miklos Nyiszli, a Romanian-Jewish doctor who was forced to work in the crematoria, and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985).
Director László Nemes came up with the idea for the film after reading the book "The Scrolls of Auschwitz", a collection of witness accounts by Sonderkommando members, after discovering it during the production of Béla Tarr's The Man from London (2007) in 2005 when he was working as Tarr's assistant.
Director László Nemes called Nobel prize-winning Hungarian writer and concentration camp survivor Imre Kertész an inspiration to make this film.
French co-writer Clara Royer had never written a screenplay before she was asked by director László Nemes to collaborate. Nemes wrote the first draft alone.
Matthieu Taponier, the editor, was on the set during much of the shoot.
Feature film debut of László Nemes.
The film's distribution rights have been sold to all territories worldwide.
In Spain it was released in 47 theaters (widest release), in a dubbed version and a subtitled version.

Spoilers 

The trivia items below may give away important plot points.

According to Nemes, the character Saul is "not a religious person, and actually makes mistakes about what it means to bury in the Jewish way. You don't need a rabbi, you need ten people saying the Kaddish, so he never gets that right."
The film is set over the course of a day and a half on 6 and 7 October 1944, when an uprising by Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz-Birkenau actually took place.
The film recreates in one sequence the secretive taking of the "Sonderkommando photographs," the only photographs of the extermination process in Auschwitz-Birkenau that still exist. The photographs can be found online.
Although in early versions of the screenplay it was clearer that the body Saul tries to give a proper burial was actually his son, it became more ambiguous through the course of re-writes. Among those who do not believe it was his son is Géza Röhrig, who plays Saul.
French co-writer Clara Royer on the narrative of the film: "It's a paradox: you can't bury in Auschwitz when you burn, and it's supposed to be one of the very first acts that made us humans."
The main character Saul Ausländer says to Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, that he's from the city of Ungvár in Austria-Hungary. Today the city is called Uzhhorod and is in the Ukraine, right at the border to Slovakia and near Hungary. It has no Jewish community anymore. Uzhhorod's former synagogue is now used by the Philharmonic Orchestra.
Director László Nemes acknowledged the connection to "Antigone", Sophocles' tragic play (written in or before 441 BC) about the daughter of Oedipus, who dies trying to provide a religious burial ceremony for her brother. "My co-writer [Clara Royer] and I never once thought of the story of Antigone but it's absolutely right," Nemes told The Globe and Mail. He further said that in both Antigone's case and Saul's, more than the individuals are being murdered; their culture is being destroyed.
The 'son' of Saul was actually portrayed by twin brothers, who replaced each other between scenes.
The character Ella (Juli Jakab), the woman who gives the gunpowder to Saul, is based on the historical Ella (or Ala) Gertner, who was tortured and executed after the October 1944 rebellion by the SS for smuggling gunpowder to Sonderkommando members.

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