“Cinema often tries to represent so much in an objective way,” explains Laszlo Nemes, the Oscar-winning director of “Son of Saul.” “But I really like the limitations you find on the other side of the spectrum and what it can convey about human experience: how little you can actually see.”
Three years after Nemes stunned the world with “Son of Saul,” his harrowing reinvention of the Holocaust film genre, the Hungarian director has taken a step back in time with “Sunset,” an enigmatic costume drama set during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was Hungary’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards (it failed to get a nomination) and will open the Film Comment Selects 2019 tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ahead of a limited theatrical release.
“Son of Saul” used a Sophoclean theme, the moral outrage of being prohibited from burying one’s dead, to explore the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. “Sunset” uses an extended metaphor to discuss the decline of an entire civilization. Simply put, “Sunset” is about hats. If that sounds comical or petty, rest assured that the film is neither. In “Sunset,” hats are “infinitely pretty things,” as one character puts it, behind which “the horror of the world lies”; they become a rich symbol of the cultured and elegant world of Old Europe that cannibalized itself in the trenches of World War I.
“This world had so much sophistication, and I think the hats show this sophistication, that so much effort and detail are put into its fabrication, and at the same time, it seems very superficial to us today,” Nemes, 41, looking youthful in his casual blazer and shades, told me in a lounge in Venice during that city’s film festival. “That age had an illusion of grandeur and beauty, and I think hats signify this in a very original way.”
The hats in “Sunset” are to Nemes what confectionary was to Wes Anderson in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a cinematic strudel that traded, brilliantly if a trifle flippantly, on our nostalgia for an impossibly refined bygone era. By contrast, Nemes’s re-creation of that same fin de siècle world is rigorous and stern, aided by many of the same crew members who worked on “Son of Saul,” including co-writer Clara Royer, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (shooting on a dreamy, slightly washed-out 35mm film stock) and production designer László Rajk.
Another holdover from that earlier film is the doe-eyed actress Juli Jakab. She plays Irisz Leiter — a young woman looking for clues about her family, who once owned a famous, luxury hat shop in Budapest. That shop still exists and bears her name in 1913, when she arrives in the capital determined to get a job as a haberdasher. Leiter’s new owner (Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov in a performance that mixes power and vulnerability) sends Irisz packing, buying her train fare back to Trieste, where she was sent as an infant after her parents died in a fire that also claimed their hat shop.
With grit and resolve that borders on madness, Irisz remains in Budapest, committed to learning the truth and to tracking down her long-lost brother. She is not out for vengeance, per se, but her stubbornness opens a Pandora’s Box of dark, irrational forces. The camera closely follows Irisz on her quest, in tight close-ups or back-of-the-head shots that both highlight the subjectivity of Nemes’ distinctive brand of narrative filmmaking and showcase the exquisite sartorial creations concocted by costumer designer Györgyi Szakâcs. Nemes’ employed a similarly claustrophobic style in “Saul” to evoke the nightmare of the gas chambers and crematoria. “Sunset” is far more epic in sweep, yet feels very much like a chamber piece, thanks to the camera’s unflinching gaze and the film’s insistently limited perspective.
After drawing from “Antigone” for inspiration in “Saul,” Nemes and Royer have returned to classical themes. This time, the point of departure is “The Oresteia.” In Nemes’ parable of the decline of the Habsburg Empire, a (presumably Jewish) brother and sister unite to avenge their parents’ death and unleash the chaos of the furies. Yet unlike in Aeschylus, the moral outrage of so much blood spilled does not lead to the establishment of the rule of law, but simply to greater and greater barbarism and carnage.
In the film’s final shot, the camera mimics Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” by crawling through a World War I trench. Irisz has survived the bedlam triggered by her arrival in Budapest to wind up a medic on the battlefield of Europe. That closing sequence also brings “Saul” back to mind, suggesting that “Sunset” is some sort of a prequel to that earlier film, an excavation of the moribund Mitteleuropa where fascism would soon take hold.
The director smiled when I proposed this; I was not, he told me, the first journalist to make that suggestion. “I don’t know,” Nemes responded with a slight shrug. “When I look at both films, there are inter-textual things about them, for sure. I definitely wanted to go back to the beginning of the century because thematically the materials are linked.”
Born in Hungary, Nemes, 41, grew up in Paris and studied film directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He also assisted the great Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s “The Man From London” (2007), before making his own films.
“I’m fascinated by how Europe committed suicide in 30 years, arriving at mass murder and totalitarianism,” Nemes told me. “When you see this face of a young girl in a barrack and it’s so surreal. When you compare it to the face of a woman with a nice hat in this beautiful world earlier in the film, it seems like an almost different planet.”
Nemes’s emotional investment in “Son of Saul” was intensified by a personal connection; his great-grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Family history also guided the filmmaker to the material that is dramatized in “Sunset” “As a kid, I had access to this history through my grandmother, had to endure all the hardships of the century, all the totalitarian regimes and suffering in the flesh during times of war,” he said. “In my mind she was a fragile woman in this century, and I think I wanted to make a film about that very vulnerable point of view
A preoccupation with the art and literature of the period is also embedded in his film. Watching “Sunset,” it is easy to pluck out many of Nemes’s influences, including Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and, perhaps most centrally, Franz Kafka.
“In Kafka, I really like how his character is always facing the walls of the labyrinths that they journey in. So there’s some question of hope and hopeless linked to Central Europe or Central European fate and history. They are inscribed in the movie in a semiconscious way,” Nemes explained.
Nemes noted that thematic concerns such as these largely determined the film’s aesthetic: “I always want to immerse the audience in a world that is not a flat world. It’s this maze; it’s a labyrinth. We look at the past; maybe we can’t really learn from the past because we look at it, and because cinema conveys it that way, in a very two-dimensional world way, as if we had so much knowledge, we knew so much better. But we always have this illusion of knowing more about the past and of being able to understand it. But we understand it less. And when you’re in the situation, you understand even less. So, I wanted to convey that kind of fragility, of limitation, of uncertainty. And I think in cinema you can take your audiences on journeys that are of a different type and give them a little bit of freedom, as opposed to planning out the entire path just to reassure them.”
The Budapest location was of crucial importance to the film’s meaning and design, he explained. “There were so many nationalities and cultures and languages and religions that existed in the heart of Europe that created a sort of chaos and interactions.” And as with the polyglot “Saul,” “Sunset” boasts a international cast, with actors recruited from Hungary, Germany, Austria, Poland and Romania, a smattering of nationalities and languages that represent much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “I wanted the audience to journey in a world that’s convincing and a multinational cast gave us a believable palette,” Nemes added.
The constantly roving camera establishes the film’s sense of wandering through a labyrinth. “Even though the social order seems fixed like the cosmos, it’s actually a world in perpetual motion,” Nemes explained. “That’s why we choreographed the film in this way.”
The single most distinctive thing about Nemes’s films, however, is their radical subjectivity. Remarkably, the strategy Nemes exploited so effectively in “Saul,” of filming his subjects at close range, often from behind, has been successfully applied to a film with wildly different subject matter and aims. “We need to discover the world in a very limited way,” he said. “We have to accompany her. Technology often gives us the illusion of seeing everything, but, in fact, we know so little,” he said, singling out Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and the films of Stanley Kubrick as particularly influential examples of limited point-of-view storytelling.
Together with the tight camerawork, the way Nemes directs his actors gives “Sunset” its intensity, its blend of combustibility and understatement.
“For me,” he said, “a face really is like a landscape, a moving landscape. I don’t want my actors to overemphasize. It has to be in the low range. All these faces have to be believable and, at the same time, everybody had to be able to play it in a very economical way. And I think nowadays expression in cinema has gone into a very specific range, but I don’t think it’s the only range that can exist.”
The word that Nemes uses to describe the formal and artistic choices makes in his films is “intuitive:” “I wanted to make a film about a beautiful young creature who discovers a world seems to be full of light, but herself being lit by this harsh light. We talked about this a lot onset. She’s brilliant, she’s sparkling but at the same time she casts a shadow, and this whole world is about light and shadow. It defined our way of visualizing and conveying it.”
Indeed, the film practically invites the viewer to read it as a critique of the enlightenment, along the lines of Adorno and Horkheimer. Irisz’s path to knowledge — and self-knowledge — is frequently lit by a brutal noonday sun that makes characters shvitz through their constraining garments. Fire, Prometheus’s altruistic gift to mankind, is a wholly destructive force, from the conflagration that destroys Irisz’s childhood world to the torches borne aloft by the brutal mob that gather to plot the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, a movement steered by a darkly charismatic leader who may or may not be Irisz’s brother.
The dichotomies explored in the film between light and dark, refinement and barbarism, reason and chaos undergird an enlightenment critique that can perhaps be read as a cautionary tale for our own age. “One hundred years ago, you had this explosion of technology, invention and science, and you see where the industrial development led us,” Nemes explained. “It seems that people back then considered progress a straight line; seems to me that it might be cyclical, if great civilizations can disappear in the blink of an eye,” he elaborated.
In lovingly re-creating that period — with attention to detail and on a scale that one imagines would have been impossible without his Oscar win — Nemes has been accused by some critics of basking in idealizing a bygone age. “I don’t know if I’m nostalgic,” he shrugged for a second time during out interview. “To a certain extent, when I look at pictures from that period, especially from Hungary, I see how much promise people seemed to have, but how the destructive forces were already within us.
“I wanted to make a different kind of period piece. I didn’t just want it to look like a postcard.”
**A.J. Goldmann is a longtime contributor to the Forward based in Munich. He also writes for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Opera News. **