Nemes. Nemes debuted with Son of Saul in 2015 winning a few awards at Cannes, the Oscar and Bafta for best foreign language film. He’s two for two in his young career following up Son of Saul with Sunset in 2018—it got none of the buzz of the debut– but is an equally impressive work of art. Nemes has a set style, uncompromising and singular. Nemes is certainly one of the most important auteurs to debut in the 2010’s (or 21st century for that matter).
Best film: Son of Saul
- I think the key to this film (and with my own struggle with the first viewing) here is by talking about the two definitions of aesthetic. There’s the adjective “aesthetic”- concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty—which Son of Saul is devoid of almost completely (on purpose- which I’ll get to later)- then there is the noun “aesthetic”- a set of principals underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement and that is where Son of Saul lands with of the greatest cinematic achievements of 2015. It may not be pleasing to your eyes and ears (Breaking the Waves from von Trier isn’t either always) but it is an artistic triumph nonetheless—both formally and intellectually
- Starts with a blurred opening image that shifts into soft focus when Géza Röhrig (playing Saul) comes into view of the camera. The decision to shoot in soft focus and have camera sitting right on his shoulder or neck is carried out for the duration of the work- an inspired, rigidly formal, stylistic choice. The tight aspect ratio –1.375:1– fits that attempt as well.
- The sound design is meticulous as well and purposeful, designed not to be beautiful or dramatic– but authentic to Saul’s world- his point of view—ambient noise, claustrophobic, ghastly screams, humanities ugliest, speaking in whispers
- a remarkable debut – one of the 21st century’s finest- confident and experiment
- The point of view camerawork (attached to his shoulder or tethered closely to him) predates (and I’m sure inspired) Aronofsky’s Mother! in 2017 (Aronofsky experiments with POV in other works including the reverse head harness POV in several films used by Scorsese in the Rubber Biscuit scene with Keitel in Mean Streets). It is on Saul’s shoulder or the nape of the neck cinema if you will. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant seems like an important text as Van Sant’s camera is like a ghost tracking these characters a few paces behind. I just watched Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake which is a film shot in the first person POV—this inventiveness seems like a cousin to the long-take or one-take efforts and
- achievements in the 2010’s of Gravity, Birdman, 1917, Victoria or even Russian Ark from the decade before and Rope back in 1948 from Hitchcock- ambitious cinema
- Saul has an X on his back, both a symbol of his position as Sonderkommando and a constant horrific reminder of his inevitable fate
- The narrative is simple like Bicycle Thieves (another important text to this film here)- a proper burial for the body of the boy, find a Rabbi—and Saul is possessed and determined in his task (a dogged determination mirrors by Nemes in his approach)
- Unpleasant on purpose- skewing conventional drama—I didn’t see it until after but it did not surprise me that Nemes, his DP and production designer had a dogma or set of rules similar to the von Trier movement in the 1990’s—here the goal was not to make a horror film, not to make it beautiful or pleasing or the eye or ear, to stay within a certain field of vision on this journey – and it succeeds, you are with Saul in this living hell (Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero a precursor- realism and neorealism)—Nemes cites Come and See and the atrocities there as an important work
- the entire film is suffocating and visceral- but the scene of Saul heading to the pit is particularly bleak- a baby crying, gunshots, screams, flood lights are in your eyes—harrowing
- ends on a smile as the boy makes his way into the forest
- Nemes worked on Bela Tarr’s The Man From London as an assistant though I do think he’s far more of a realist (the long takes from Tarr are present here)—this is more Dardenne brothers’ realism than Tarr
- A Must-See film at least- could go higher with more time and/or study
total archiveable films: 2
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 0 (but this will be remedied with my next update)
most overrated: No overrated films for Nemes. I’ll get to Sunset in the underrated section but the only one mentioned thus far on the TSPDT is Son of Saul on the TSPDT top 1000 of the 21st century (his debut is 2015 not surprising nothing is on the overall top 2000 yet). Saul currently sits at #5 of 2015—respectable spot.
most underrated : Sunset doesn’t show up at all among the many films listed from 2018 on the TSPDT consensus list for the 21st century.
gem I want to spotlight : Sunset.
- Sunset confirms the László Nemes’ 2015 debut Son of Soul was no fluke or happy accident experiment. It was, instead, the debut of a bold new voice for 21st century cinema— and Sunset is a remarkable companion
- The Hungarian auteur takes the same dogmatic approach here in his sophomore effort: point of view subjective cinema via the central character’s (Juli Jakab here) shoulder/neck/face/back— often in shallow focus – meaning the background is often blurred. The camera is tethered to her for the entire running time. This approach, though different (and historically unique) has similarities to first person POV cinema (like Lady in the Lake) or one-take (or long take) cinema (like Russian Ark, 1917).
- Starts with actress Juli Jakab (playing Írisz Leiter) trying on hats- seemingly innocuous at the time- but will came back later to have major meaning behind it
- We get only breadcrumbs of the story at first—piece by piece–purposefully opaque — the parts given to Jakab’s character. It makes for a mystery/detective film even a noir type story deployment even if the setting and costume work would make you think you’re in a Merchant Ivory film (set in 1913 Budapest).
- Cryptic and impressionistic (both the unraveling of the story and visual style)—lots of close-ups- different though than Dreyer capturing Falconetti or Jonathan Demme
- Again proof Nemes is a singular artist- rigidly formal, intellectual in his approach
- Tracks Jakab around a bustling Budapest with gorgeous yellow natural lighting and costume/period décor detail. We feel her solitude (she’s an orphan), her fear (characters in the background (blurred out) constantly whispering about her), paranoia, and the ugliness of this world and people around her- Son of Saul
- I think the disorientation (intentional) and unfamiliarity with the story/setting may be the reason for the tepid response in comparison with Son of Saul – in Saul we are all familiar with the Holocaust and that world (at least partially from history and films)
- It’s stylistically fascinating both on its own and in comparison with cinema historically. It deconstructs and opposes Bazin, Murnau—Welles and Wyler’s deep focus – or even Roy Andersson’s cinematic paintings
- A great sequence at the 59 min mark – magic hour lighting as the train arrives – something that looks like it comes right out of Malick’s Days of Heaven– this isn’t sustained but still- beautiful
- Like Son of Saul she has a one-track mind and is willing to die for it- she’s relentlessly pursuing answers- first it’s about her brother, then uncovering this story—multiple people threatening her and putting her on a train to leave- (as her same outfit gets dirtier and dirtier)—this works almost like The Big Lebowski or The Big Sleep – she’s a detective- an unconventional one for sure
- Many extras- the jubilee set pieces, the murder at the mansion, extraordinary choreography and period detail—I bet it does drive some people (maybe production designers) a little nuts that have of the time at least this beauty is all fuzzy in the frame with the soft focus
- Nemes has clear and unique approach- he is a contemporary master- this is one perspective with a clear dedication to that aesthetic (set of principals underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist)- one perspective. If he blinks from that, even for one scene, the spell would be broken and the work would be so much less
- At 122 minutes there is a stunner of a frame- the Zelma character (Evelin Dobos) goes off to be sacrificed and Nemes takes the frame from soft focus to a total blur—stunning
- Kafka feels like an influence, The Castle from Haneke, The Trial from Welles, Transit (2018) from Christian Petzold feels like a cousin
- Ends with her walking away out of focus completely- brilliant—then a long ellipsis — and the haunting Paths of Glory-like tracking shot through the trenches
- A Must-See film
- The very definition of aesthetic – a set of principals underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement—dogmatic approach- rigid
- most often a shallow or soft-focus photography- intellectually opposed to Bazin and Welles/Wyler
- Opaque/cryptic/impressionistic- both in visuals and narrative
- Close ups- nape of the neck, camera tethered to subject (and it is that person’s point of view) most often at the shoulder or behind on the neck- but there’s almost like an invisible leash of 10 feet– it isn’t like Demme or Joan of Arc– often we get these characters in profile or again- are shooting from behind them
- Ambient noise is also characters POV—visceral
- Paranoia and fear for the protagonists- these are terrifying worlds they’re in
- Long takes
- Son of Saul
By year and grades
|2015- Son of Saul||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives