We first heard of László Nemes in 2015 after his spectacular debut Son of Saul at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a magnificent year for European cinema, with the biggest names in the industry running for the Palme d’Or – including Paolo Sorrentino, Yorgos Lanthimos and Jacques Audiard.
Nemes did not win in Cannes, but still brought home four other awards, including the Jury Prize. Meanwhile, Son of Saul continued its triumphant march around global film festivals, ending with the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The staggeringly long list of awards for the Hungarian director’s debut is the best proof that sometimes taking creative risks can pay off. It took Nemes a long time to collect resources for this challenging and extremely demanding project, based on a very personal story. Many members of the director’s family lost their lives in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and all they left behind were a few yellowed photographs. Son of Saul was conceived from the deep need to tell the story of the Holocaust in a different way than others have, such as Steven Spielberg. The film was made out of frustration with the simplifications and shortcuts taken by Hollywood productions when trying to show an unimaginable tragedy from a place of comfortable distance. Sunset – the latest feature production by Nemes – is just as personal as his first film, this time telling a story based on his grandmother’s childhood memories of the time between the two world wars, steeped in the vibrant atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe.
Magdalena Maksimiuk: In both Sunset and Son of Saul you show a world that’s already gone. What do you find so fascinating about the past?
Lászlo Nemes: I guess it’s about my personal preoccupations. I am interested in worlds that come and go in a matter of seconds. I find it fascinating that we feel so secure in our society and civilization – I’m not even talking about politics or military power, it’s just how much desire we have in ourselves to destroy what we can build. And these are interesting questions. In my first film, I wanted to go back to the point where it could have been different, to those crossroads in history. I studied history, but I didn’t want to do a historical film; it’s not a history lesson. It’s more about the very essence of time, and of why and how a hundred years ago, we turned a promise of civilization – an incredible promise of science and progress – into something so destructive that a few years later led us to mass destruction.
The story that you chose to tell in your latest film is very personal.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would tell me stories about her childhood. She was born in 1914, and I thought it very symbolic that she lived through the century and the hardships of all the totalitarian regimes. I was fascinated by where it started, and going back and seeing it through the eyes of a seemingly innocent creature to that period was very interesting. That’s how I imagine my grandmother, and in that sense, this story is very personal. The stories and memories my grandmother had shared with me are mixed with fictional events.
When I was looking at images from the turn of the century, I really wanted to discover how sophisticated the world of the past was. How did it happen that everything that made our civilization so great was eliminated in a matter of years? The people were so well-read, and they were ready to make great sacrifices to see a theatre play or an exhibition in a gallery. Juli Jakab, who plays a supporting role in Son of Saul and the leading role in Sunset, has become the symbol of those changes in my films. In Son of Saul, she has the face of a woman undone by the inhuman treatment of the concentration camp, but in Sunset, as Iris, she is full of joy and hope. It’s the same woman, and yet it seems like someone from a different planet.
You still draw inspiration from the events that took place in your closest environment and in your own family. Sadly, those events were very dramatic.
My closest family members lost their lives during the Holocaust. Their experiences were the main inspiration for Son of Saul. I did, however, base the film in equal part on the testimonies of the prisoners, and not the survivors who wrote down their memories years later. I was looking for an atmosphere of horror and fear about staying alive for the next few hours. That was the reality of the prisoners, it was their daily life. Out of the nine million Jews, only one-third of them survived the Holocaust. Death was prevalent everywhere, in my family as well. So I didn’t want to talk about the exceptional cases of people who survived this terrible time, but of the majority, and of the destruction that was omnipresent there. Perhaps that’s why my film was so shocking for many people and so difficult to digest – it became uncomfortable for them.
Do you think that’s why so many viewers and critics have rejected your vision?
We did have a lot of problems with Son of Saul. I knew from the very beginning that it was going to be a risky film. Many festivals, including the largest ones, didn’t want to screen it. We had to wait for the Cannes Film Festival, and they showed a lot of courage in accepting it for screening. Luckily, the risk was worth it.
Despite the external pressure, you decided not to soften the film’s message.
I did not. I believe that most Holocaust-themed movies are very much alike. The lives of Jews are shown from the perspective of a comfy chair of some producer, by which I mean there is a safe distance of time and space. Those movies are strongly accusatory towards the murderers, and critical about those who didn’t help the victims, or who tried helping when it was already too late. But still, this vision is very distant from the reality of the Holocaust. We are talking about the traumatic experiences of real people who lived and suffered through something they had no influence on. The Holocaust and death are ingrained in my DNA, and I won’t ever escape it. No matter how much time passes, concentration camps, their prisoners and crematoriums won’t ever become a closed subject to me. All I have after my murdered family members are a few photographs. I make my films for them, not only Son of Saul, but also Sunset and all the others I will make in the future. They must be remembered.
Both your films invite the viewers to take an uneasy look at the past. Apart from the subject itself, you set the bar high with your film-making technique. Audiences are used to the fast pace and multiple plot lines that they usually get with other films and TV productions.
I just trust my audience. Every film I make says as much about me as it does about its viewers. I invite the audience to take this trip together with me, and I encourage them to experience something new, even if those experiences are painful and difficult. Even just 50 years ago, cinema was perceived as an adventure and an opportunity to explore new worlds, but it also presented a particular vision of the world. Today, you can feel the panic condense in the air, everyone keeps saying that everything has already been done, and yet we keep trying to condense the stories and tell as many of them in one short piece. Only the result matters: we want to know everything at once and feel immediate gratification. But Son of Saul and Sunset don’t deliver those ready-made results. These films need to be experienced and considered.
Don’t you think it might be this approach that makes your viewers feel frustrated? They are, after all, used to a different style of film watching?
I hope that what I have to offer is simply something different and new. An audience that trusts me can be taken on a journey across time and space, where not everything is within their reach. That’s how life works, after all. We don’t get an instruction manual and simple answers. We remain unsated and restless. I do realize that my films make a frustrating cinema and that it’s not very fashionable [laughter]. But if you avoid the risk, what’s the point in making movies? I wish there were more risk-takers in this industry.
You speak of your fascination with history, mainly in the context of the rapid changes that happened in the world in the space of just several years. But both your films are primarily focused on the people and their experiences as history unfolds before their eyes.
Yes, definitely. This is the central theme of both films, and the common denominator between them. I imagine I do it intuitively, but I suppose that cinema and art in general exist to find parallels between the experiences of the movie characters and those of the viewer. I am anxious to see new trends and new media that set the tone for various creative paths today, and I try to oppose them a bit. We live in very impatient times, the times of constant acceleration and thoughtless consumption. I would prefer the audience to grow together with my characters, and I don’t want to reveal all the secrets straight away. I don’t care for plot twists either. I like to keep the mystery veiled for as long as possible.
Is this why in Sunset, you serve information about your characters slowly but effectively, piece by piece, as if trying to engineer the workings of social media before the digital age? You say you don’t want to give away too much information too soon, but this knowledge still seems necessary.
Because of social media, everyone has an opinion on every given topic. We are bombarded with never-ending streams of information. In theory, it may seem like we remain neutral, but we don’t, of course. What’s more, this constant access to information gives us the impression that we are obliged to know everything immediately, and so we pretend we do. Knowing it’s all fake makes the whole thing even more frustrating.
The new media shape not only taste, but also help grow awareness of what is happening in the world and in politics. Since you are a Hungarian artist, we can’t ignore the question of remaining objective in a country that often serves as an illustration of the modern-day authoritarian regime.
It’s difficult for me to give a clear answer to this question, because I try to distance myself from the political situation, despite the ongoing trends. I do realize that there aren’t many creators sharing my perspective and my distance. I know we live in dangerous times and that the duty of the media – including the new media – is to heat up this atmosphere of unrest and ongoing threat. That’s why I think I should distance myself from this situation in order to be able to talk about the world from the right perspective.
I’m guessing your films have never been censored?
Luckily, the Hungarian Film Fund is still independent of politics. I am aware this could change at any time, but as for now, nobody has ever tried to censor my films – except, of course, the suggestions to revise and change the message I send in Son of Saul. However, those suggestions never came from Hungary (because my first film was fully paid for by the Fund), but from potential sponsors in France, Israel, Germany and Austria. They all got scared and backed off. I imagine they regret it now [laughter].
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated by Aga Zano