Shooting Death in the Face: Son of Saul’s cinematographer takes us on a horrifically beautiful journey through the death camps

  • January 15, 2016
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From the first frame to the last, the stress is palpable. With little verbal communication and eight languages intertwined between short, half-sentences, Son of Saul relies almost completely on the visuals to communicate the horror, fear and anxiety of the Sonderkommando - Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi death camps participating in the mass extermination of an entire people.

Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, HSC and Son of Saul co-writer/director László Nemes approached the film with minimalism and simplicity. The heart-wrenching story follows one man's attempt at holding on to a shred of civilization in the uncivilized world of Nazi Europe as he tries to find a Rabbi to bury a boy in the death camps.

Director László Nemes and Géza Röhrig
Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"We tried to stay away from anything that would make the film overly aesthetic," says Erdély. "We were after an image that was very raw and brutal. I only used white light, never applied color gels to the lights, and we did not use any lights for the day exteriors. Again, our approach was to be as simple as possible and focus on the character and the story and this became our 'look' in a way."

Digital was never even an option for the Hungarian-born filmmakers. In fact, the director went as far to say that he would stop making movies if he can't shoot on film. "For both of us," explains Erdély, "shooting and projecting on film gives the best quality and the most immersive viewing experience. We wanted the organic look of 35mm, with a grain structure that is alive and with images that have depth."

Erdély's cameras were the ARRICAM LT and the ARRI 235, loaded with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 for the entire shoot. With the 5219, Erdély felt he could maintain consistent grain structure and contrast throughout the film. Erdély prefers the 5219 over the slower stocks because it has a lower contrast and saturation. Since the movie would have a photochemical finish, Erdély needed a stock that would look the same as the final desired image. He also had a one-stop, push processing for all the night exterior scenes in order to have a bit higher contrast and more speed.

Left to right: Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and Géza Röhrig
Photo by Ildi Hermann, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Ninety percent of the film was shot on 40mm Zeiss Master Prime lenses and the rest was shot on the 35mm Zeiss Master Primes. Both have a wide stop of T1.3, allowing for low or available light-shots and a more natural-looking feel, creating the cinematic look of an extremely shallow depth of field. The filmmaker never shot wide open, but shot around T2.0 for interiors and T2.8 2/3 in day exteriors

Erdély and Nemes wanted to rely upon the audience's imagination in Son of Saul. "I think that we created something that is more effective by limiting and controlling the image," Erdély describes.

They used the Academy aspect ratio - a 1:1.37 that results in a portraiture-like squared image. "We cut the sides of the frame off, essentially," he says. This aspect ratio has the biggest negative area of all formats besides anamorphic. The result is a claustrophobic environment - which the death camps of course were - and eliminates the viewers' perspective, melding it entirely into Saul's world.

"I always kept the camera very close to our lead played by Géza Röhrig," says Erdély. "By doing that, we created a background that is out of focus and very hard to read. The basic idea was chaos. Nothing that is surrounding this character makes sense, wholly. We were really trying to recreate the actual atmosphere that the character might have been going through as a Sonderkommando member."

Levente Molnar as Abrahám, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Because of meticulous technical tests and all aspects of their job being pre-planned, the film went off with fairly smoothly. Erdély's work as cinematographer was a combination of mental and physical challenges, shooting all handheld and with very complicated choreographed sequence shots. Erdély explains that after a few rehearsals, muscle memory would kick in and he and Röhrig would dance together as partners when it was time to roll. "It required a huge amount of concentration and brain power to remember the movements," he recalls, "but if I had been reacting to his moves, I would have already been late. I had to be fully anticipating each move before it happened."

They finished the film photochemically and screened their 35mm print struck from the cut camera negative at the Cannes International Film Festival. It won the Grand Jury Prize. They used the Hungarian Film Lab for processing, printing and the DCP as well for screenings where a digital print was required.

"My color timer was Viola Regéczy and my colorist was László Kovács," says Erdély. "It was truly amazing to be such a small-budget Hungarian first-feature film and still go to the lab every other day and watch our printed dailies. We were blown away by the power of the projected images."