More than any film in memory, Son of Saul takes the audience into the heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious death camp where the Nazis murdered millions of Jews during World War II. The story is seen almost entirely through the eyes of one individual, Saul Ausländer. He has been made one of the Sonderkommandos – Jewish prisoners forced by the SS to lead thousands of daily arrivals to the gas chambers and afterwards remove and burn the corpses. He tries to find moral solace from his unspeakable task by salvaging from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son, and attempts to have him buried with dignity.
To handle the film’s shattering subject matter within the confines of cinema that an audience can absorb, Hungarian director-screenwriter László Nemes and director of photography Mátyás Erdély came up with a set of rules that would guide the making of the film. “László and I decided well before the shoot that we would stick to a sort of dogma,” the cinematographer explained. “We had to stay away from showing this world in a way that is acceptable or mundane,” he noted. “But we didn’t want to turn it into a horror film either.”
Son of Saul, a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens in theaters Dec. 18. It is Hungary’s official entry for this year’s best foreign film Oscar and earlier this year won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Over the weekend, Erdély was awarded the Bronze Frog or third prize at Camerimage, the annual international festival of the art of cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland, for his work on the film. The awards are considered among the world’s highest accolades for cinematographers.
Getting Son of Saul made took five years, but the shoot, which took place in and around Budapest, lasted only 28-days. The film had a smallish $1.4 million budget. For a game plan, the director and DP decided to stick strictly with the main character and not go beyond his own field of vision, hearing and presence. The camera is in effect his companion. “Our main concern was how to show things that are not possible to show. This was the fundamental question we faced from the beginning,” said Erdély. “The approach was to exclude everything not fundamental to the story, to not represent where we are or where we are going,” he added. “We were assuming the audience would know immediately what we were presenting. We didn’t need to show anything about the era, the historical circumstances – just focus on the story of this one man, and exclude anything that is not part of the story.”
Erdély shot the movie on four-sprocket 35mm film, in a 1:1.33 squarish aspect ratio, instead of going with a wider screen format that would have verged on the picturesque. Director Nemes continues to be a passionate advocate of celluloid, as does the DP, despite the onrush of digital technology. “The challenge was to strike an emotional chord in the audience – something that digital doesn’t allow for,” the cinematographer noted.
The cinematographer shot handheld. He used a 40 mm lens which focused precisely on the image at hand but created a very shallow depth of field. Thus the more graphic images, such as naked dead bodies, were seen very blurred in the background.
“Every director is different to work with, and I very much enjoyed working with László because he understands every element of cinematography,” said the DP. “He is fully aware of the quality of light and, as we were relying on natural light for our outside scenes, we had to wait for the perfect light and László was totally supportive.”
Erdély, born in Budapest, is 39 and regarded as one of Hungary’s top cinematographers. And he has a growing international footprint as well. Son of Saul is actually one of two films released this year that he lensed. The other is James White, about a 21-year-old New Yorker, who struggles to take control of his self-destructive behavior amidst family challenges. The movie, directed by Josh Mond, won the “audience favorite” kudo both at the Sundance Festival in January and at the recently concluded AFI Festival in Hollywood. He is currently in Morocco shooting Hier, a film noir piece about altered states of consciousness, the feature debut of Hungarian auteur director Bálint Kenyeres, with Swedish star Michael Nyqvist (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol) as the lead.