Interview: László Nemes
After simultaneously astonishing and horrifying critics and audiences with his debut feature, Son of Saul, the Hungarian director László Nemes returned this year with Sunset, presented in the competition of the 75th Venice Film Festival. In Sunset, Nemes’s filmmaking is as absorbing as it was in Son of Saul. Budapest at the beginning of the 20th century—where an orphaned young woman, Irisz, searches for her mysterious brother while working at an upscale hat emporium—presents its own kind of nightmare, made ominous and fantastical through Nemes’ claustrophobic framing, chiaroscuro look, and fluid camera movement. In his Film Comment review, Jonathan Romney called the film “historical fiction as phantasmagoria—a whirlwind of incident, involving conspiracy and criminal actions in society high and low,” where “sinister monocled grandees feature, as do nocturnal, brutal men of the streets.”
Film Comment spoke with Nemes in Venice after its world premiere about his enthralling new film, the relationship between form and content, and the spectator experience.
Could you describe the creative process that led you from the concentration camps of World War II to Budapest at the beginning of 20th century?
I had a project I wanted to make before finishing Son of Saul, and it was a proto-version of Sunset. After that, I really wanted to go back to a period in our history, the human history, where we were at some kind of a crossroads. Before World War I, there had to be a moment when it was still possible to take another path. Our civilization had so much promise 100 years ago, so much sophistication, and yet it chose self-annihilation in a very short period of time, falling directly from the height of the civilization to darkness. I wanted to set a movie in that period, and to plunge the audience into this world through the eyes of a gentle creature, who is trying to find the brother she never knew of. In the process she finds herself trying to understand who he is, but more importantly, who she is.
It was a lengthy writing process with my co-writers. I tried not to do a usual period movie, but something more of a journey that wouldn’t depict things in a classical way but would go back to the very heart of personal experience. For that, we had to design the story in a certain way and design the scenes almost like a movement of planets. Irisz is like a lonely person as if she was a planet in the darkness of the cosmos with all of the other planets and the stars, and confronted with the light and the shadow and the darkness around her. These are the basic elements.
In both of your feature films, the protagonist is searching for a family member.
Yeah. I guess I’m defined by a need to belong.
So this was a conscious decision?
The people in Sunset are the generation living before that of Son of Saul.
Yes. I thought about it.
Did you want to talk about a kind of emotional heritage, where a trauma of one generation is translated onto another?
If you look at the faces in Son of Saul, you notice that one is the same as Irisz in the Sunset. You put next to it the image of the woman in the world of beauty with a nice hat, and there you have a very strong contrast, almost like a different planet. How did this happen?
So were you trying to link one generation’s actions to the one before them, something like what Haneke’s White Ribbon does?
I was interested in civilization that at its height is pushing back forces within itself, threatening its very existence. Something that you can’t control or rationalize, something that has to do with some kind of desire to commit suicide. That mystery really fueled my interrogation and my work. That’s how I approached this historical period. Other people did it in the past, but in different ways.
How do you personally relate to these stories?
I can really relate to the fate of the young person lost in the midst of the turmoil. It’s not a civil strife, it’s not war. It’s just something, a sort of uneasiness, a sort of hectic, strange atmosphere that you can’t really rationalize or put your finger on. It’s something that’s floating. I think that in films sometimes it’s easy to depict events that are specific, but I don’t think that’s how the human history works. It’s something more subdued, more under the surface, more invisible. And I wanted to give some sense of that invisible force underneath the civilization.
How are we to relate to these events from 70 or 100 years ago?
This is specifically why I wanted to make this film, because history seems so remote and amiss. We have the impression or maybe the pretension to understand it, whereas I don’t think we have a complete understanding of history. It’s not because of the tons of research going on that we understand. I think, inside the human psyche, human history has a part that cannot really be understood, and that will remain a mystery. Not because a lack of fact, but because it doesn’t seem logical.
How do you mean?
Why did this civilization commit suicide, for example. It’s probably a historical point of view, metaphysical point of view, cinematic point of view in one, if you want. Cinema can try to do these kinds of things. It has to be less topical sometimes and more concerned with building a cinematic experience.
Sunset felt nightmarish in the same way as Son of Saul.
It is like a dream in a way, a sort of vision, maybe. It wasn’t really conscious, but what I discovered afterward was that we are so close to the main character, that we have to experience the world through her, and we have to let go of certain conventions and codes and pre-requisites, pre-dispositions, to let ourselves go with the flow of the film. That’s trust in the viewer, and it’s also one of the challenges of the film.
You used similar framing in both films, but in Son of Saul, it’s clearly justified with the narrative, in terms of the claustrophobia of the concentration camp. Sunset is different.
It doesn’t have to be justified by the narrative. It’s more about the philosophy of art. This is about how objective you want the experience to be and how subjective. I am drawn to the subjective experience of art and the world. I think cinema is moving away as fast as it can from this subjective, the individual experience, it wants to have a god-like vision, going everywhere and being unlimited, or only being limited for the sake of the narrative, for the sake of the story, for story satisfaction. I really believe you can do it differently. First, you have to trust the audience to join you in the journey, and to project their own subjective experience of it onto this subjective way of filming. But also, we are in a world in which this young woman cannot have access to everything, it’s just impossible. So it’s her limitations that create the limitations of our vision. For me, it’s actually her place in the world that dictates the place of the camera, its limitations.
I liked your stylized use of the sound. People are heard talking at the same volume, no matter where they are.
We wanted to create a confusion of this world, you’re almost hypnotized, she’s hypnotized by this world, and you have to let go of the control. Again, the trend in today’s cinema is to reassure the audience, to give them control, be at distance. But what if I take away the distance, what if I take away the control, the freedom? In a way, I give them the possibility of freedom, but it is the freedom of control that I take away from them. This is a very interesting conversation, about how much trust we have in the audience and how much we want it to be personal. I didn’t want to be impersonal. Having a meaningful experience doesn’t come from rationalizing, it comes from the feeling of the atmosphere and the situation, maybe not even understanding it, then maybe I have to change how I’m thinking about it, try to understand it. But in a way, it uses the intelligence of the viewer. And not trying to rationalize everything. If you rationalize everything, then you get completely lost, because you’re panicking. You don’t have to understand everything, because in life, you don’t understand everything. Life and art are very much connected. It’s not something else, a whole other world to flee our world. It has more to do with the journey within ourselves, towards the center, and not fleeing from the experience. Today cinema is in panic, because we don’t want to lose the audience. So, we have to tell them every step of the way, what to think.
This is relevant to my final question: how do you respond to the comments about your new film that the narrative is confusing?
It was my intention to have a frustration. Frustration and confusion are a part of this process. I mean, it’s a girl looking for her brother and trying to find out whether the world around her is actually good or bad. It’s also a doppelganger film. If you’re open to that, you don’t need to understand more than that. There are interpretations. You don’t have to understand, these are clues. Clues are sometimes not even true, and it’s a different type of narrative, and you have to accept that. I think cinema should reaffirm its genetic code of inventiveness and trying to break new ground, and not do the same films over and over again. And for that, we have to search, experiment, take on new adventures.
Tina Poglajen is a freelance film critic.