“Son of Saul” Director László Nemes on Spatial Strategies: A Conversation From the Past

“And now what?” It sounds like a genuine question to ask a director who has just won a prize in a “A list” film festival. It happened to László Nemes just a few days ago, during the press conference of the Award Winners in Cannes. His first feature, Son of Saul, won the prestigious Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Prize with international acclaim, so everyone wanted to know what was next.

Yet, instead of talking about his recent exploit or future plans, I want to jump back to 2012, when I shared a few days with László in France and later in Italy. We both were attending the TorinoFilmLab programmes that year: I was taking part into the Audience Design sessions and he was among the emerging talent selected for Script&Pitch. László was developing a project called Iris, set in 1914 Budapest when war was about to break out.

Still from "Son of Saul"

Back then we had the chance to talk about different approaches to cinema. I was surprised that he wasn’t at all interested, to say the least, in what I was delving into: the many possibilities of digital media combined with audio-visual narratives, especially transmedia storytelling. For a while I even thought he was a bit out of fashion in resisting something that so many in his field were embracing.

Then I realised that he had such a strong vision for his story and that his “classic” approach to cinema was not classic at all, nor a snobbish faith in the power of 35 mm (which he chose for Son of Saul too). He was concerned about the integrity of that story and his idea of cinema was grounded in a visual approach that he described as “an organic spatial strategy” based on documentary-style realism, through which he was going to immerse the viewer in a “more volatile, unreliable flow of information.” Any doubts I had were then wiped out when he pitched his project by screening a teaser that clearly showed how talented he was.

László NEMES © BEA KALLÓS

I remembered that conversation while I was reading the director’s note written for Son of Saul. “We follow the main character throughout the film, reveal only his immediate surroundings, and create an organic filmic space of reduced proportions closer to human perception. The use of shallow focus photography, the constant presence of off screen elements in the narration of extended takes, the limited visual and factual information the main character and the viewer can have access to – these were the foundations of our visual and narrative strategy.”

When it comes to directors’ visions, there is no right or wrong. But I’m glad to see that what László was experimenting with his short films has now become such a powerful piece of cinema, a tale of horror and hope that now I am now looking forward to seeing on the big screen.