Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Guided Tour of Hell

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Guided Tour of Hell

Article excerpt

Shooting on 35mm stock is rare enough these days, but color-timing photochemically is almost unheard of. Yet, that's the path cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, HSC and director László Nemes insisted on for the Hungarian film Son of Saul. The harrowing Holocaust drama won four awards at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prix, and is Hungary's submission for this year's Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The film also screened at the recent Camerimage festival, where Erdély was awarded the Bronze Frog.

Son of Saul is set in the AuschwitzBirkenau death camp in October 1944. Both dramatically and visually, the film focuses on a single individual, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando work unit - Jewish prisoners who were forced to remove corpses from the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoriums. One day Saul spots the body of a boy he believes to be his son. He becomes obsessed with hiding the body and giving the child a proper Jewish burial.

Saul's single-minded quest leaves him oblivious to everything else around him, and his psychological fog is mirrored in the film's visual concept. "The lens remains focused on Saul, almost always in close-up or tight medium, while the horrors unfolding in the background - inmates herded into gas chambers, dead bodies being dragged away - are out of focus," Erdély tells AC, speaking by phone from his home in Budapest. "By shooting close to wide-open [T2 on interiors and T2.81/2 for exteriors] and focusing the lens approximately 216 feet from the film plane, objects [beyond those 30 inches] are still visible, but blurry. László's genius was in using this very basic photographic tool for dramatic purposes."

Nemes started thinking about Saul more than a decade ago, and initially mentioned the project to Erdély in 2007, after the cinematographer shot the director's first short film. Over the years, even while working on other projects, they established a set of rules to follow: the entire film would be shot handheld, using a single lens and a single stock.

As to the film's unusually narrow aspect ratio, the cinematographer explains that initially "we were concerned that 1.37:1 wouldn't give us enough of the environment. But once you move the camera - which we do constantly on Saul - you can reveal as much as you like.

"This film absolutely could not have been made without focus puller Gergely Csepregi," Erdély adds. "He was remarkable."

Son of Saul was shot predominantly on an Arricam Lite (with an HD video assist to ensure high-resolution preview images). An Arriflex 235 was substituted when confronted with especially tight spaces; when running with the camera was required; and when the camera was placed in an underwater housing unit, even as the lens remained above the water line.

Far more significant for Erdély than the camera selection was the choice of lens and film stock. "One of the most important aspects of choosing the right lens was how the out-of-focus images would look," he submits. "The film's whole visual approach relies on what is revealed, how it is revealed, and the infor- mation that is kept from the audience. If you show a dead body, how much of it is hinted at and how much is actually [seen]? We wanted a very precise recording of reality, and Zeiss makes the most precise lenses out there: super-sharp, very clean and no artifice. I opted for [Arri/Zeiss] Master Primes, which I consider the most pristine."

The same reasoning lay behind the choice of focal length. "Approximately 85 percent of the film was shot on a 40mm and the rest was on a 35mm," Erdély says. "We wanted a focal length that would translate reality onto film in the most precise way - one that didn't distort or magnify, and was neither too wide nor too long. I believe the 40mm is the closest to how we see the world."

For his film stock, Erdély explains, "I shot everything on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219. I wanted the levels of grain and contrast to be consistent throughout the film. …

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