Filmmaker László Nemes on Cinema v. Television and the Historical Draw of Subjective Narration

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Director László Nemes was born in 1977 in Budapest, Hungary. After studying History, International Relations and Screenwriting in Paris, he worked as an assistant director in France and Hungary on short and feature films. He assisted Béla Tarr on The Man From London, and subsequently studied film directing at New York University. His shorts have been awarded thirty prizes in more than 100 international film festivals. His first feature, Son of Saul, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, was awarded the Grand Prix, and later received both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best foreign language film in 2016. His second feature film, Sunset, premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival in 2018, where it received the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award.

All of your movies, starting with your first short, have been shot on 35mm film. You’ve also said that television is not the same as cinema and that cinema is now abandoning itself to the forces of content. Can you explain what you mean by this? How would you describe the difference between cinema and television?

For me cinema is a hypnotic experience. As a viewer you sit in a dark theater and half of the time that you spend watching a 35mm print is actually in darkness. The other half is about still images becoming movement in your brain. It is a hypnotic, physiological experience that cannot be replaced by only the visual information of pixels. Cinema is very remote from televised experience. I think the fact that we live more and more in a virtual world, in a world that has no traces and no memory but only data, presents a civilizational challenge. I think it’s not only about cinema but about the entire civilization. To what extent are we willing to give up on physical and chemical existence and give ourselves over to an imagined virtual reality? That can be very dangerous. I don’t mean to go into a long monologue about this, but it’s just that we are losing so much. And I have to tell you, as a filmmaker, when I shoot on film, there is magic to it. Partly because you don’t have an immediate result, but also — you have to have a craft, you have to control the elements. Nobody does it for you. No machine replaces your brain, because you have to make the decisions before or during the shoot and not in post-production. Nobody corrects it for you. So we have to be present when we shoot on film, and this creates a focus, a concentration, that is unparalleled. Shooting on film is finite, not endless, because we are shooting on matter, on material that comes to an end. This creates an incredible state in the filmmaker that too many people are giving up on.

In terms of film being a finite material, your first short, With a Little Patience (2007), is a single, evolving 11-minute long take that spans the length of the reel. No cuts. It was your first collaboration with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and introduced a technique you would employ again in the films that follow. Your camera clings to a single character who becomes our guide and leads us through an environment where we hear more than we see.

I guess I’m interested in the subjective quality of human existence, which is overlooked more and more by the objective imagery that we as a society tend to favor. I want to go back to something very human and subjective and personal. We don’t perceive the world in an omniscient way, so I try to present perceptions as human beings in their limited world can perceive them. I think it’s more of a philosophy of how we are in the world, and how we perceive things. But also, maybe it’s about how mankind has evolved, and that’s why I’m interested in civilizational questions? What do we build with our hands as mankind? And how long can it last? I’m interested in taking the audience back to times that seem remote or for which we lack understanding because of how they have been conveyed in cinema in a very objective way. I want to go back and experience those times through the eyes of one individual. It’s a very instinctive approach or feeling that is translated into cinematic terms. That’s what I’ve been doing so far, and we’ll see what happens next.

Can you say more about your strategy of withholding visual information? There is an ethical rationale in Son of Saul (2015), which is set within Auschwitz in 1944, but we find a similar approach in Sunset (2018), too, which is set in 1913 Budapest on the eve of World War I. What draws you to this restricted mode of narration when exploring the historical past?

It has to do with how we perceive our world, and our past. We think all the time that we know much more than we actually do. The internet conveys and reinforces this in a spectacular manner. You have the impression that the camera is always there to film, to uncover things. The illusion of uncovering our world and the multiplication of angles that we are experiencing through television or the internet has affected filmmaking very much. The multiplication of angles gives the audience a distantiated position, but also one of tranquility. It’s a static position that is narcissistic and, in a way, full of illusions. That’s why my films go back to times past, to explore echoes of our own view of the world, our own illusions, and to move away from an understanding of the past as something static or completely understandable. The past is mysterious. Why did Europe go into a self-destructive mode a hundred years ago, for the first World War? That is a mystery and I think it’s not enough to be rational about it. It’s not enough to read history books. There is something deeper in civilization that I really wanted to deal with, some kind of destructive force, and I guess I set out to make Sunset for this reason.

Juli Jakob as Írisz Leiter in Sunset (László Nemes, 2018)

You’ve said that actors are often expected to perform like washing machines with different loads of laundry — to laugh, to cry, to have this whole range of human emotions, whereas your approach to performance is more low-key. What are your thoughts on acting?

I really think that the cinema of spectacle in the last thirty years, the ever-growing obligation to impress the audience, is actually giving rise to less and less involvement. It’s actually very anti-cinematic. This evolution was probably accompanied by television performance, by the explosion of our expectations regarding performance and how the actors should behave. There is now a well-defined path — storywise, as far as dramaturgy is concerned, as far as shot design is concerned, and as far as performance is concerned. This kind of well-planned journey is very anti-cinematic. Cinema should question the given order, as it did in the past. Different directors had different approaches to performance. I was very much impressed, and influenced I guess, by directors such as Robert Bresson in France, who is a lost tradition. In a way it is something more invisible, but in that less visible realm, something takes place. It’s not about the circus of performance, but something deeper and I think more vibrating in an unexpected way. That’s what I’m looking for: a sort of simplicity that we can achieve through focus. A lot of things can be expressed by a low-key approach. I really believe that certain echoes will be heard only when we allow them, through silence, to be heard. That’s the kind of cinema that I am interested in.

Did Bresson influence the way you think about sound? Your movies are notable for the way you extend offscreen space through sound.

We really believe in the fact that sound should not only repeat what you see in the image. It should open something different, you know? Another perspective in the brain of the audience. It’s not that I want to go against the trend, it’s just that conventions have narrowed and narrowed and narrowed down to something very simple, with image and sound pointing in the same direction. I think sound can be an incredible tool for the filmmaker. My aim is to bring sounds together like a musical composition, to open deeper psychological perspectives that images have less access to. It’s like seeing into the soul of the character, in a way. This is what sound can do. That’s why we create a dynamic range of sound, an ever-evolving whirlwind of sound and music and score going into the source, and source going into score, and having an entire composition, almost like a symphony of sound. I really believe in that. It was a very instinctive way of working, but it’s also very interesting as a way of giving the audience an insight into a character like Írisz in Sunset who is trying to piece things together. But it’s very hard. We have a main character who is lost in a world that was unfolding before the War, and her soul is a reflection of the period, I guess.

Géza Röhrig as Saul in Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Because your films are carefully constructed to align spectators with a single, subjective point of view, I wanted to ask about a notable exception to the rule. In the beginning of Son of Saul the camera clings to Saul’s body when he comes into focus and we stay very close to this body throughout the film. But in the end, after he looks out the door and sees a child, the camera detaches from Saul and follows the child into the woods. Likewise, in Sunset, the camera clings to Írisz throughout the entire film, until the end, when we have a scene where the camera wanders through the trenches, suddenly detached from Írisz’s perspective. I am curious about these moments where the camera suddenly detaches from the body and the consciousness that governs the film — from Saul, from Írisz — and assumes a point of view of its own as a way of concluding.

I see directing as a dialectic or conflict between this very subjective, very strict point of view and the constant temptation to break out and try to find a sort of objectivity or global understanding of the world that is depicted. So I guess the ending of both films is a way of finally liberating ourselves from a point of view, which happens for different reasons in different films. But still, the way it becomes objective is still in a very subjective way, almost like a POV. In both films, the POV says something about the relation to the audience, and to the forces of civilization.

You said that you were drawn to Sunset as a film that looks at a particular historical moment when civilization seems to be at its apex, but also has built up within itself its own capacity for self-destruction. I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where he says that every document of civilization is also, at the same time, a document of barbarism, because in your film there’s a memorable line about how “the horror of the world hides within these infinitely beautiful things,” meaning the hats that are produced by the Leiter store. On the one hand we have the exquisite fabrics and sophisticated hats, and on the other, the social violence that explodes from within. In the director’s statement you published for the release of Sunset you wrote that you believe we’re living in a world that is not far from the one before the Great War of 1914, “a world utterly blind to the forces of destruction it feeds at its core.” Does looking at the historical moment you represent in the film Sunset say something about the world we are living in today?

I wish I had more time to answer this question. Where should I begin? In the present we’re in a constant frustration of always thinking about the next moment, and also in a very narcissistic mode in the way we produce images of ourselves. In a way we feel that we’re in control, but history teaches us that civilizations come and go very fast. Our very existence is extremely limited, and this applies to civilizations, too. But we’re not necessarily aware of that. Before the First World War, Europe thought that because of its mastery of technology and technique and the incredible spiraling force of arts and sciences and ideas and ideologies, we thought we could not be defeated. And it’s just interesting how, mysteriously, we went to senseless destruction and from there to totalitarian regimes. The 20th century was, in a way, a complete destruction of all the illusions we had at the turn of the last century. Today we don’t really have a consciousness of that process.