László Nemes’s harrowing portrait of a Sonderkommando in the final days of Auschwitz, SON OF SAUL stunned Cannes upon its world premiere, landing the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and making the festival rounds before playing at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi.
We spoke with cinematographer and AFI Conservatory alumnus Mátyás Erdély about how he achieved the film’s impressive look.
Talk about the decision to follow the character of Saul for the entirety of the film.
The film focuses on one character and his journey. We wanted to limit the amount of information that reaches the audience that is not relevant to Saul’s “mission” and keep the background secondary. One reason was not to show too much of the horrors that are impossible to portray, and the other reason was really to focus on Saul’s story.
What were some of the challenges you faced in pulling off the film’s many long takes?
Long takes require a huge amount of concentration from the whole cast and crew. Shooting on film actually helps to create concentration. Lighting needs to be variable during the shot according to the needs of the scene and the operating of camera and the coordination of background were usually very complex and complicated. We did many elaborate rehearsals to figure out the details and timings.
An important aspect of this film is what is not shown, or what remains in the background.
Every detail of every shot was planned and discussed beforehand. So we knew exactly what we wanted to show and how much in or out of focus it should be if it is in the shot.
Were there any specific images of concentration camps that you drew upon when creating the look of this film?
We visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and also had extensive discussions with our production designer. The main photographic references were the two photographs that were taken by the members of the Sonderkommando that we used as a reference for our photography scene.
SON OF SAUL opens in limited release on December 18, 2015.