Interview: SON OF SAUL Production Designer László Rajk Talks About Recreating Auschwitz And Working With Béla Tarr
One of the discoveries of the last year was László Nemes' feature debut Son of Saul (read Jason Gorber's review), an immersive Holocaust drama chronicling the daily proceedings of Sonderkommando.
Nemes brought home more than 45 awards to Budapest, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a Golden Globe, not an insignificant success. Indisputably, Son of Saul is interesting, offering not only in topic but also in form and style. Space, not only décor, plays a crucial role as a narrative device. One of those responsible for bringing to life the haunting place, which serves as a memento to this day, was Hungarian architect László Rajk.
Rajk, a son of a Hungarian minister of interior after WWII who was one of the first victims of the Stalinisti show trial in Hungary, was active in anti-regime activities and served in Parliament. He's also an architect as well as a production designer who has worked with Miklós Jancsó, Costa Gavras, Joseph Sargent, Fatih Akin, John Irwin, Béla Tarr and Ridley Scott.
ScreenAnarchy met with him at Visegrad Film Forum in Slovakia, where he was presenting a masterclass on cheating with perspectives. Rajk enabled a peek behind the scenes of Son of Saul, revealed why he considers Son of Saul a starting point in new film language, and talked about working with Hungarian legend filmmaker Béla Tarr.
Son of Saul is now available on DVD and Blu-ray .
ScreenAnarchy:How did you prepare for the endeavour to design the space in SON OF SAUL?
László Rajk: Before working on Son of Saul, I designed an exhibition at Auschwitz Museum that why the research, ambiance and data were clear to me. I could start immediately working on the film with this strange film language. Personally, I am convinced that Son of Saul is the starting point for new film language, when the space is described by human bodies and their movement within it. And most importantly, space is described by noises so the sound design and sound mix play important role. We have already seen such films but in this case, you have it from the very beginning until the end. This is what I call a new film language, people do not see the space but they understand. And that is an interesting phenomenon.
You have studied probably blueprints for the exhibition...?
As I told you, the research has been done. I invited history experts from the exhibition to the film, so the team was ready, the backup of historical knowledge was there. However, I must say that it is very rare in the filmmaking that you meet such educated persons as the DoP Mátyás Erdély and the director Laszló Nemes who are very cultivated with broad horizons of historical knowledge. I have to tell you, this is very rare.
In this regard, it was easy connection and easy revealing of historical data. Also Laszló started writing the script based on the so-called the scrolls of Sonderkommando. People were writing diaries and they rolled-up the writings and hide them in tin cans or bottles and buried them in the proximity of the crematorium and they were found in ´62 or ´64 and published in the 70s. Actually, Laszló found this diary when we were shooting Béla Tarr´s The Man from London in Corsica. And this was the time when we started to read. I did not know about the books, he gave them to me. So I would say it is a rare combination regarding the team working on Son of Saul.
Have you know right from the beginning that space will be limited to the edges of the frame?
I was working on all Laszló´s films and I would consider one of them called The Little Patient a experimental laboratory for Son of Saul. You can see exactly the style employed in there expect that the camera is mounted on dolly instead of handheld which creates more excitement than the dolly. Otherwise, it is very similar. We all have already seen these solutions with the camera focused on the protagonist with the rest of picture blurred, we saw it but to create this through the whole duration of a film, that´s interesting.
Was this the factor when you were designing the sets?
Seemingly you do not see the set because you can only glimpsed fragments but when you take into account the movement of camera, you see everything. So everything had to be done. We could not save money on something you don't see because you see everything. It might be sometimes blurred but on another occasion the protagonist is passing by, you got to see the detail in focus so we had to do the whole thing.
The new experience for me is that it´s hard to tell the size. You know the space, you know its structure and how it is connected but you do not know how big it is actually. I myself would not been able to tell ahead: "Don´t be excited guys, no one will see those are small places" and they are much smaller than in reality. I would not been able to tell it during the shooting. But when I saw the result, I was surprised that even I cannot tell whether is 10x5 metres or 100x60 metres. And this is very interesting, you understand the logic of the space but you do not understand the size of it.
DoP then did a good job.
Of course, but it is also a result of this new film language - the camera movement and blurring - and that you do not have an establishing shot. We decided at the beginning that we are not going to do the establishing shot to show how big Auschwitz was. It'ss thousands and thousands people, we know this. It´s in our collective memory so it is needless to shoot it again.
Anyway, the film is new in its style, it´s very new in its approach. Up to now, almost every Holocaust film is told from the point of view of survivor. Those are the witnesses, on their witness accounts the stories are based so I would say it is natural it is told from their perspective.
However, Son of Saul is told from the perspective of a dead person. We are following a person of which we know he is not going to survive. You know it right from the beginning and there is no doubt about it. At some point, you might probably hope that he will make it but 90% of the time, you are sure he is going to die.
This is a new kind of tension in storytelling because it doesn´t give you a secret relief that there are still survivors. Six million people were murdered and there are still survivors. In this case, you do not have any, this film is merciless. It really shows you that once you are there, you die. There is only very tiny percentage of survivors. And this is the responsibility of filmmakers that we were always emphasizing the small percentage but we did not talk about the 99%. And this is the new approach in storytelling regarding Holocaust subject.
The element of Son of Saul that shakes the world, I think is the topic -- the Sonderkommando. Even after this film, they do not think they were the victims. It is not very clear. They were guilty just like the guards. We can distinguish them but basically they are the same bastards who are constantly drunk and putting the people -- as the last humiliation -- to the flames. They are killed in the end but they deserved it. Still, it is not clear and to talk about such topic is going against taboo.
Would you say the film is controversial because of this?
You will hear only praise for the film but in Germany, they criticized the film very sharply. You read in the serious German newspapers that Son of Saul is kitsch, it does not say anything new, it is a blasphemy. They are really attacking the film probably because there is no relief in the film.
I fully understand that Germany made an unbelievable effort to have an objective image on Holocaust. And this movie is really making it upside-down. No wonder they are surprised and consider it provocation. But I believe the film will stuck in our collective memory. Take for example Schindler's List, I think 60% of people talking about Schindler's List has not even seen the film but they still know it and can talk about it. I hope this will also happen with Son of Saul.
Do you see SON OF SAUL as politically complicated?
What I see as political dimension about which we did not think while we were shooting the film in 2014 but we talked about it a lot, the stronger and more rigid the dictatorship is, the bigger is corruption and chaos. And these are facts that they were smuggling gold, bribing and having women and the chaos after transport´s arrival, it was not like a clock-work.
The image of well-functioning machinery is false, it was the other way round. And it occurs to me more and more with the current refugee problem. Our prime minister Viktor Orbán is trying to make the system more rigid but the chaos and corruption is still growing. And we all know it. I do not know how many people were smuggled through barbed wire last year but now it is five or ten times more. Instead of augmenting the security, the situation is exactly the opposite. And Son of Saul has the kind of message.
Were you also assisting on storyboards?
We did not use storyboards on this film. Sometimes, I brought small models or we used my plans, where László and the first AD noted the movement of protagonist and cinematographer naturally. We did not improvise on location, it was ready.
Were you on the location during the shooting?
Yes and no. We had a stand-by and I was always there when we were moving to new location on set as for example the Nazi office or the gas chamber. When they were starting to shoot in new space because it was all one big complex. Everything was together - the attic, the furnace room, the doctor´s office, the Nazi office - everything was really connected.
Naturally, it did not happen that all the parts would be in the shot so when we moved to another one, I was there to do the last touches. Usually, I was there when they started to rehearse, then I left, they started rehearsing around seven or eight AM and the first take was between 2 and 3 PM, usually two or three takes. This was basically the working schedule but I was not there constantly.
Everything had to be built up?
Don't forget that Son of Saul is not even a medium-budget film, it cost 1,1 M € which is on the edge. We used an old warehouse and it was easier for me to structurally modified the space a little bit. The basement was the basement, the ground floor was the ground floor and the first floor was the attic and it is six-floor warehouse.
How is it to work with Béla Tarr?
We know each other for decades. Like in a small country, you know each other. We understand each other therefore we quarrel a lot of time. It is fruitful but sometimes fights. However, it is never a dead-end, the fights also lead somewhere, to a solutions. And that is very important that when we start to bang on table and shout, we know we are not going to kill each other and we do not digress to nowhere. And it is exciting to work with Béla. And then I am not needed at location.
The space and sets are very minimalistic in THE TURIN'S HORSE but still rich. What was at the beginning?
All right. No storyboard, of course there is a script but it was rather a novel than script...
Laszló Krasnohorkai´s book...
...yes, but it is always transcribed. It is always based on novel. Béla always had big board and stickers on which he put his vision. The problem is the cinematographer, the director, the production designer, we all deal with same visual but we do not have the same language.
My architecture drawings are useless for the director, the cinematographer is telling me he is going to use fifty, even after forty years in film industry I know only vaguely what it means. And this is a problem of creating a language and creation is through dialogue and discussions so I have to dig out what kind of space he wants.
Béla was pioneering it but lately, if you think about it, everything is in the space. You have a tripod, a camera and an anamorph and you got a beautiful fixed pano. You do not have this anymore, the camera is constantly moving and that happens always in the space. If you think about the shittiest shooting game, it unspools in a labyrinth, all the time and still moving.
In Béla´s work, it is very important in what kind of space the camera will be moving around. You have to know what is more or less the space, of course we are using models or reference points like in The Turin Horse, as I far as I know, the reference was a house on Sardinia Béla found on the internet. This was just the first reference point from which we started to work on the film.
Once it is done, then comes the banging on the table. I have to know "Okay Béla that is good, now this is going to be twice as big because you have the camera and the dolly and all this gang running around the dolly" and in the picture, it has to be small but if you go physically there, it is like a ballroom. And that is the tricky part, how to handle it. Generally, it is built 360 degrees but usually we know we won´t use the full scale.
Generally, we use 270 degrees because you have to put camera somewhere, boomers, focus etcetera. Especially, in Béla films, somebody is still running around taking away the chairs for camera to pass through and putting them on the exact same place because they will be in the shot. So it is a long process of rehearsing with the whole team rehearsing.
The most important is, if you see Béla´s films and these long shots like in Alejandro Jodorowsky or Miklós Jancsó, they are very spacious doing the long shots but Béla is doing long shots in small spaces. This is really a crime. You have to count it, I mean not millimetre for millimetre, because if I do not have the space, you know, there goes another 50 centimetres because you are out of the house.
In The Man from London, the shot from the cockpit of the crane, there was no other way to shoot it. I build a 3D model on computer and I forced Béla to sit down and analyze on the computer which was... you could imagine Béla sitting at a computer... but in the end, it helped us to analyze the opening shot where you basically see everything.
The watch tower has to be on the correct level, the ship has to be on the correct level, the distance, so everything had to be very carefully planned. The pieces of the set were so big, you could not move them. They could not say let´s move this tower a bit closer to have it a bit far from the ship. This was even much more complicated than The Turin Horse.
How do you plan your work? For example in THE TURIN HORSE .
The openings are always predecided, planned. In a complicated case which is not very complicated in case of The Turin Horse what we do is to find a communication with Béla. We take some sticks and tape, I draw the floor plan and there is just grass, so he can move around and he feels the size of the space. If it is needed, we made a cut-out of window to see what we can see. So you have this kind of double-checks.
But again, the 3D model is the same thing but for Béla it is more convincing if its done on the location. But usually, I do models. For example at Slovak-Hungarian co-production Mirage, we did not have a location but we had to start design the set. We sat down with the director and said this is what we need: a house, a pomp etcetera.
Basically, I made a Lego and we still did not have the location since it was in the national park, it was hard to find one. And we did not know what is allowed and what is not. We went to three different locations with the same set of Lego and we were ready for when we get the permission. So we built the set from this little maquette, this was the prepared design.
Do you always read a script before sketching out space?
But you said regarding THE TURIN HORSE, there were no details about space.
But still, I read it to see that there is not much information about the space. I am doing this for 40 years and I still cannot judge from the script whether it is going to be a good or bad film. But from my perspective, if I see for example some scriptwriters loved to put library in their scripts.
And I am always calling the director "Listen, if you want something really expensive, write library" you may think it is very easy to get books from 1960´s from Czechoslovakia but in library you need thousands of books, not just one. And there are these kinds of stereotypes in scripts.
What was the major information in the SON OF SAUL script?
The functioning of the crematorium. But it was me who gave the description to think about movements and the order of work around the crematorium - the changing room, the gas chamber, the elevator ...
The technical aspects I would say, how it worked was given by us to the writer. In this case, it was reverse. You could say the set was already ready when they started writing the script.