nemes portrait

The Double Exposure team is hard at work putting together this year’s print journal, but we were so excited about this extensive interview contributor Milan Loewer conducted with Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, whose second film Sunset recently opened in New York, that we decided to share it a little early. Keep an ear to the ground for details on the release of the full publication at the end of the semester!

Double Exposure: I want to start by talking about the unique style that you have developed in your two features. In both of your features, Son of Saul and Sunset, you focus on one individual’s subjective perspective as the camera follows that subject through a chaotic and claustrophobic environment. What attracts you to this specific way of presenting the world?

László Nemes: For me, filmmaking is all about subjectivity and about expressing subjective experience. My attraction to subjectivity is probably a rebellion against contemporary trends in film and in art more generally. Contemporary art seems to be trending towards objectivity; it treats human experience as if it were bound to a sort of objective, Godlike point of view, which, in fact, could not be further from the truth. In cinema, in particular, the so-called digital revolution has lead us more and more towards objectivity. Directing styles increasingly follow a narrow, almost televised logic, and editing patterns are more and more about a multiplicity of angles and a shortening of shots. It gives me the impression of a televised football game – the camera is always in the right place at the right time following the action. In this kind of cinema, there is no room for the restrictions of human perception. Humans do not experience the world from an omniscient point of view; we have a much more restricted access to information and knowledge. This orientation in cinema, and media more generally, towards an all-encompassing point of view creates untruthfulness and anxiety precisely because our actual condition is marked by restriction rather than omniscience. It represents a reduction of the language of cinema, which, in my work, I am definitely rebelling against.

DE: More specifically, what attracts you to the kinds of stories that readily lend themselves to this ‘subjective cinema’ that you have developed?

LN: I am interested in plunging into a world with a character – discovering space and time with them and forcing the audience to share both space and time with the character.

DE: So what are the kinds of stories that most readily allow for a cinema in which we can discover space and time with a character? Are you already working with your cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, when developing your scripts, or, once the story is already there, do you and Erdély then work backwards to figure out how to plunge into the subjectivity of the main character? Do you think that the scripts you have could be shot differently?

LN: They could be shot differently, although Mátyás already intervenes when I only have a treatment. He has been very helpful in shaping the subjective cinema that I have been working on since my first short film. He presents his point of view at an early stage, which is very useful. He’s interested in stories, and in films that have the ambition to push the limits of filmmaking. He’s also interested in my questioning of the established order of filmmaking – it is not by chance that we are working together. We talk about our work in an analytic way, but we are also instinctive in our taste. What we can do in a given situation is very limited, because we gave these frameworks to the films; we are here and now with the main character. Mátyás is very helpful in defining what can and cannot happen within this framework – what  the logic of the film is and what falls outside of that logic.

DE: It’s also very interesting that you tie the tendency towards ‘objectivity’ in recent cinema to the digital revolution. You’ve shot both of your features, and all of your shorts as well, on film. What is so important to you about the medium of film, and how does digital encourage the kind of objective cinema that you are rebelling against?

LN: My attachment to film, first and foremost, originates in the fact that it is a medium based on the physical world, on optics, on chemicals, and on physical rules, rather than on a virtual world that doesn’t actually exist. I feel that art has to be grounded in the tangible world and in human experience, otherwise it becomes too abstract – we give the power to computers and take it away from our minds. Obviously, physical film is limited – not endless. In this way, it’s also linked to our possibilities as human beings. Digital, on the other hand, gives us the impression of being limitless, of having endless material and endless means. It gives us the illusion of liberty, but in reality, digital is only an excuse for making bad films. Digital tempts the filmmaker to do more without having a real plan. It’s a different approach, and it allows for laziness; laziness which is disguised as the seductive idea of improvisation. Digital also enables you to create worlds that are more and more sumptuous but, in a way, create less and less of an effect on the audience. When you’re shooting on film, on the other hand, you have to make your decisions before and during the shoot – not afterwards, in the editing room. This raises the stakes and creates energy. It pushes the filmmaker and everyone on set to be at their best. Rehearsal means something. You don’t switch on the camera in the morning and switch it off in the evening. While this may seem limiting, this limitation actually opens up a realm of possibilities – it forces the filmmaker to be creative.

DE: You often use sustained long takes, sometimes static but sometimes very active, which for me convey a visceral, very experiential sense of time passing. Does your use of film tie into the way in which you work to express the passage of time?

LN: I think part of the answer to your question relates back to the kinds of limitations that film as a medium puts on you as a filmmaker. But, beyond that, it also has to do with physical properties of the film itself. When you project on film, half of the time the audience is in darkness – it’s a sort of hypnosis. You are creating movement out of still images. The movement is created in your brain. In other words, it’s a hypnotic movement – a physiological movement. This is a phenomenon that cannot be replicated by pixels, which bombard you with information without the breathing room created by the shutter reprieve. And I’m not even going to get into the details of how regressive digital quality is compared to film. We’re losing so much by losing film.

DE: Regarding your writing process: when you’re germinating an idea for a film, do you start with a story, an idea, a theme, or just an image? How did you end up making a film set in Auschwitz?

LN: It starts more or less with an impression. For Son of Saul, I wanted to make a film about the Sonderkommando. Or rather, I wanted to make a film about Auschwitz after reading Miklós Nyiszli’s book. It contained incredibly vivid and powerful imagery that I thought should be on film. But not frontally, because frontally, no one would be able to sustain the images of the concentration camp. It would diminish its effect to show it frontally. And again, to return to the importance of analog, from the very beginning this film had to be made on 35mm. It would have been savagery to recreate this world in the computer. At first, I didn’t know quite how to approach it, and then I came across the stories of the Sonderkommandos: their written testimonials. It took years. And then the image came. Not even an image really, just the idea of a man finding his own son among the dead and trying to bury him. Then we developed it with Clara Royer from there, but based on the testimonials of the Sonderkommandos. It was a very complicated process. It incorporated so much – Shoah, the Lanzmann film, Kertész’s Fatelessness, all the preexisting ideas and stories and imagery of the Holocaust. I wanted to tell a story about the Holocaust based on one person, honed in on their subjectivity, giving the viewer no room to distance themselves; no room to find safety in distance. I was not trying to uncover it all from a removed omniscient perspective.

DE: How did the process for Sunset compare to the process for Son of Saul?

LN: Sunset was all about the fear of an unknown city. I wanted to make a film about the birth of the 20th century. I wanted to show how the shiny civilization of the 19th century turned towards the most barbaric forms of self-destruction. I wanted to show the fall of that civilization into darkness, and how the forces of destruction were already present in the most beautiful city of the civilized world on the eve of the First World War.

DE: You mentioned Nyiszli, Kertész, and Lanzmann as inspirations for Son of Saul. Did you read anything that set you towards making Sunset? Musil, for example? I feel that there’s this very Musilian ambivalence that’s expressed in the film.

LN: Musil didn’t influence making the film per se, but I think there’s so much in common. It’s very striking. Nonetheless, Kafka certainly made an impression on this film. The main character is always facing an obstacle that cannot be overcome. It’s something that’s very Central European, and it comes from this tradition of Central European thought that I definitely identify with.

DE: Your films, certainly Son of Saul, appear to have a direct chronology. Some great films immerse the viewer in the subjectivity of a character through the use of what Deleuze calls ‘virtual images’: dreams, recollections, fantasies, or whatever, where we go away from the present chronology of the film, and into the subjectivity of one of the characters. Many of the filmmakers that you have said you admire make use of nonlinear narratives, dream sequences, fantasies, and flashbacks (Tarkovsky, Malick, Bergman, etc…) perhaps with the notable exception of Béla Tarr who tends to stick to a direct chronology. Your films seem not to feature these kinds of ‘virtual images.’ And yet, I feel that more than almost any other films I have seen, the viewer is immersed, almost drowning, in the subjectivity of your characters. Do you feel like you can reach inside and show us a character more fully without the use of “virtual images”? By not directly entering the consciousness of the main character, but rather seeing the world as they do, does this better approach, perhaps in an indirect way, an understanding of their subjectivity?

LN: It’s really difficult to answer this question. I only do what I feel is right. Sometimes Bergman can be very, very realistic in a way. Take The Virgin Spring, for example. In a way it’s very down to earth, even if, ultimately, it approaches reality in a different way from the way my films deal with reality. I really wanted to plunge into a realistic world – almost a trivial one – that becomes, through the directing strategy, very subjective and dream-like.

DE: Would you ever consider making use of some kind of non-chronological narrative, or slipping into fantasy in your future work?

LN: For the moment, I’m not so interested in that, but maybe someday I will. Films rely on those kinds of images very easily, and I think it’s very hard to make them specific, to make them stem from true subjectivity. They express the director’s point of view, mostly. Instinctively, I’m drawn to a more Bressonian approach. Even if the film is still very much driven by the director, it is more economical in its approach, and more grounded in the here and now. On the other hand, I’m also drawn to visions, for example what Klimov achieves in Come and See – by the way, that’s one of the greatest achievements in filmmaking. There are attempts at going away from the present reality in that film, but these are only attempts – the events finally pull back the viewer into the world of destruction.

DE: In Sunset, particularly with a lot of the inexplicable violence and the way it crescendos towards the end, a lot of that seemed like wandering through a dreamscape.

LN: It is. It’s a subjective experience. We’re really going into the mind – the labyrinth – of the main character.

DE: But, nonetheless, it’s a subjective experience of the present reality?

LN: Yes… well, there is, you know, this whole presence of the brother in the second part of the film, whenever he can be seen or felt, its linked to some kind of personal, very subjective imagery.

DE: So is he really there?

LN: Well, when he is seen in the fun fair, I think he’s a vision.

DE: So in a way that is a fantasy-image?

LN: I would say that he’s grounded in reality, but, at the same time, he’s a vision as well.

DE: You use the image of the child as an uncomprehending witness in both Son of Saul and Sunset. In Son of Saul, at the very end, we see a Polish child stumble upon the escaped Sonderkommando, and in Sunset, we have this image three times. First, when the Wunderkind is witness to the rape of countess Redey, then when a child sings over the casket, and, towards the end, when we again have the wunderkind playing the violin as the raid on the villa commences. What attracts you to this image?

LN: I like it. I guess it stems from my personal experience, from my childhood. I experienced things that I did not fully understand or fully want; I wasn’t protected in the way that I might have been. This is something that stems from there.

DE: In Sunset, we get this sense of a wonderful lost world. But that same world also contains a kind of grotesque dysfunction. How did you attempt evoke these two competing realities?

LN: Sunset was always planned to have those two elements. The shining light and brightness, and the darkness and shadows trying to undo it. That’s very instinctive for me. The characters in the film are always twofold. The whole film is about duality – its architecture is organized around duality. Each character in the ‘world of the day,’ has their counterpart in the ‘night-world.’ I drew this paradigm, partly, from fairy-tales. I’m very drawn to the logic of fairy-tales, and I loved fairy-tales when I was a kid. They left a great impact on me. Sunset is a tale of a young girl who arrives in a foreign place and tries to understand it. She has to try to get through the ‘forest’, and the more she goes through that forest, the more we discover that the forest is herself. We are in her own labyrinth, and the labyrinth is something that there isn’t necessarily a way out of.

DE: So you’re saying that the world on screen, is kind of a projection of Írisz?

LN: Yes, in a way.

DE: There’s this really interesting line in the film where someone says that Kálmán (Írisz’ brother) projects horror onto the world, and Írisz is wondering if she does the same. Is she actually similar to her brother in that way?

LN: Yes, absolutely. The main character herself not only goes on an actual concrete journey, but also on a psychic journey through the layers of herself. The more she opens the curtains around her onto the horrors present in her world, the more she uncovers new layers of herself. I also always felt that this film was a doppelgänger film. It’s interesting how the feminine and masculine intertwine and cannot be separated. I really like this idea, and I know that it’s something that’s not very trendy in an age when we want to turn men against women and women against men. It’s a very primitive, but, also, I think, humanistic approach, in which the two essences cannot be separated.

DE: I want to switch gears and talk about your development as a filmmaker more generally. You grew up partly in Hungary and partly in France, but I get the impression that you have a closer connection with Hungary’s history and psyche. Would you agree with that?

LN: I am connected to both. I have a Central European heritage that emphasizes the forces of the unknown – a sort of gothic world, the world of Kafka and Dostoevsky. But I have the Cartesian tradition in me as well. I went to France when I was 12. It was a brand new world and I was definitely attracted by the power of reasoning. I relate to both traditions, and I wouldn’t like to choose, although I feel very much attracted to Central Europe. The history of the 19th and 20th centuries has been influenced by Central Europe so much, and I think that influence will continue in this century as well.

DE: What do you think set you down the road of wanting to become a filmmaker?

LN: I think it was the moment when I first looked through the viewfinder of a 35mm camera. I can still remember the image I saw, and it was magical.

DE: What was that image?

LN: It was just a room, but the image through the viewfinder looked magical, even if it did not represent anything out of the ordinary. And this is something, by the way, that digital cannot reproduce.

DE: Where do you intend to go from here? Will your future films also be shot in this ‘subjective cinema’ style? What, if anything, can you say about your next project?

LN: It’s too early to say anything specifically. I’m working on two different projects right now, but I can’t really get into it yet. But I will say that I don’t want to do only subjective cinema. Or rather, I want to push the limits of subjective cinema by using other styles and using space in a different way. For example, both Son of Saul and Sunset are films made of sequence shots, more or less, and that’s something that I am not necessarily wedded to in my future projects.

DE: What would your advice be to aspiring filmmakers? You went to Tisch briefly. Did you gain anything from that experience?

LN: My experience of film school was very disappointing, because it failed to convey a sense of curiosity to the students. The program did not truly encourage curiosity and openness to the world, instead it pushed amateurs to make films before they were actually ready to make anything. That’s my main problem with film programs. They convey the message that everything starts with you – which is a lie – instead of teaching the students that there are traditions and you have to be interested, at least a little bit, to know where you are in those traditions. This pedagogy creates narcissistic people, because they know that there’s so much that has been done, but film programs, instead of giving their students a real corpus of knowledge – an introduction and invitation to the art of film – pretend that students have to express themselves.

DE: Regardless of whether that expression is actually expressing anything at all?

LN: Anything at all. It doesn’t matter if there’s real thought behind it or not. The most interesting advice that I would have given myself, in retrospect, is to never say anything without a thought. A thought is not just a line. It’s not just a dialogue. It’s something much more deep, buried, underneath. Be truthful to the voice that’s within you and don’t try to imitate other things – try to think about the world. Don’t touch a camera before you have anything to say. You can only have something to say if you first have thought, and for that, you have to be open to the world and you have to be aware of your own place in the history of cinema and in the history of the world in general.

DE: You studied political science before you went to film school. Did that inform your filmmaking?

LN: Political Science, specifically International Relations, taught me a lot about the world. But, I think mostly it was important that I didn’t have to start making films immediately.

DE: What experience was most important for you in your development as a director?

LN: I think the idea of the apprenticeship is very important. It’s important to learn from someone with real thought and vision.

DE: And that was Béla Tarr for you?

LN: Yes, absolutely.

DE: So Tarr was quite important in getting you on the path towards discovering your own unique voice?

LN: Yes. That’s why I think it’s of paramount importance to be next to someone who is a master. The concept of apprenticeship is something that is forgotten and should be reinstated, because it is so important. It’s like in a painter’s workshop: you start by painting the bushes, and then you move on to other details, and then the background characters. So I encourage everyone to try to find an ‘apprenticeship’ rather than to go to film school. The good news is that there is so much room for good filmmaking because there is less and less of it. And if you question the system a little bit, you might end up with something significant.