Interview: László Nemes on Sunset
After his ground-breaking debut feature Son of Saul (2015), lauded both at the Oscars and in Cannes, László Nemes shared another gripping masterpiece with the world last summer, this time in Venice. While the Lido’s red carpets were too crowded for a chat with the Hungarian maverick, IFFR’s laid-back atmosphere presented us with the most unique of opportunities. In Rotterdam, we talked to Nemes about his captivating Sunset, and the subjective perspective at the heart of his filmmaking.
I was wondering why you chose this particular time period.
Nemes: I chose it because I think that the times at the turn of the century were very interesting in Europe, and they also say something very deep about how human civilisation evolved: the extent to which the desire to build cannot be separated from the desire to destroy. [The characters in Sunset] are in a sense destroying the very civilisation that they helped build. On another level, WWI is fast approaching, and destroying the promise of Europe – that was in itself a mystery then, and remains a mystery today.
I imagine that has a direct parallel to how Irisz is trying to claim back her place in the family business, but ends up playing a role in its downfall.
Nemes: Yes, absolutely. If you pay attention to the film, she is key to this downfall. One of the main questions in the film is, to what extent she is driven by her desire to destroy the Leiter millinery.
Irisz’s grin at the end is implying she definitely had an intention to destroy. Her brother says he intends to use her to destroy the Leiter hat company. You probably left it open on purpose, but I was wondering whether she’s aware of her own intentions – when is her decision taken?
Nemes: I am leaving that open to the audience. But in a way, the existence of her brother is also questionable. I wanted this film to be about ‘the double’. The elements you mention are clues that reveal the main character’s essence to the audience.
You start with the words ‘let’s lift this veil’. This foretells mystery. Care to comment?
Nemes: I often feel attracted to archaic stories or tales. In a way, I felt there was something biblical to this story. The audience is not constantly offered an explanation for everything taking place. It’s part of the journey, and I really want to have this dialogue with the audience: with questions and answers, and the audience misleading themselves; and it’s all part of the game, part of a process.
There is a point where you say that the evil Kalman sees in Brill is a projection of his. I feel that the same is true for the audience, due to their incomplete knowledge on the unfolding events.
Nemes: This film is about projections for sure. In many ways: in our desires, our understanding – or lack thereof. It is not about objective filmmaking, but rather the subjective experience. The film embraces all the limitations of human perception, and uses them to address each viewer with their own limitations. It’s even about projections in the more literal sense: cinema as a dying form – film in its chemical form is being replaced by TV and the internet.
Why the theme of war? This is a theme that is shared between Sunset and Son of Saul.
Nemes: The two films are linked on many levels. I think war is a very strong force behind human evolution, and we cannot truly understand it: why is it that, when we achieve a very sophisticated civilisation, war is not only reduced, but comes as a backlash of incredibly barbaric form? And in an industrial setting – that is very strange, when you think about it. WWI and WWII took place at the very heart of the civilised world: that’s a mystery I’m very interested in. I think if you’re not asking questions about the very essence of existence and humankind, I don’t know what you are, but you’re not a filmmaker – you’re a journalist… which is OK, but it’s not the same thing!
It’s interesting that you use the word ‘mystery’. Mark Frost views mystery in a very similar way: as a necessary ingredient for self-discovery. Are you interested in Twin Peaks?
Nemes: I am, very much. It’s not my universe, but I have tremendous respect for it. You cannot always pre-fabricate everything for the audience, you have to rely on their imagination and thoughts. Otherwise you’re just handing them out manuals and blueprints, and I don’t think that’s the objective of cinema. And the fact that cinema is more and more unwilling to defend itself as a separate art form is something that I’m worried about. Filmmaking is becoming more and more standardised.
Nemes: First and foremost, it takes a very objective perspective: like filming a football game - the camera is always in the right place at the right time. There’s a divine point of view, there’s shot inflation – patchwork imagery from many different angles. From editing, to directing, to VFX, everything is pointing in the same direction: the audience has less and less to do. Everything is pre-fabricated, there’s less [room for] imagination, less [room for] emotional engagement. This is something I’m really worried about.
This absence of multiple angles that you mention is an intriguing thing to experience in Sunset. We have no clue where we are or who Irisz is – and she doesn’t either, it seems. There is no omniscient perspective, only Irisz’s.
Nemes: I am not being rebellious just for the sake of it. I’m interested in the subjective experience of life being conveyed through cinema. Cinema need not necessarily take a subjective perspective, but it should at least question the grammar of filmmaking. And it’s doing so less and less. There are other ways of doing it, but we’re always making the same films. As filmmakers, we should separate ourselves from educating the public. We are here to engage with the public, through a meaningful experience that will make them think. I think journalists have a huge responsibility to defend films that are more daring, but they are not always willing to do so.
I’ve read that Murnau’s Sunrise was important to you when making this film. It seems that the title also suggests a link with Sunset. I would love to go and watch Sunrise and find out what that link is by myself, but I was wondering if you cared to shed some light on that topic.
Nemes: Yes, please do go watch it and find out – it’s available online. Sunrise is a film about the despairs and hopes of civilisations. It’s about human existence in a world beyond reach. But it’s very optimistic, despite its dark elements. It came at the beginning of the talkies and, in a way, it’s full of the emotions of a rebirth – following WWI – and a trust in technology: that we’ll master it, and we’ll make things better, and we’ll mend everything with it. In retrospect, although it’s a beautiful film, it’s interesting to see how few reasons there were to be so optimistic back then. And in a way, Sunset, without meaning to be presumptuous, also marks the end of a filmmaking era – though I wish I was wrong. But with the standardisation of cinema through TV and the internet, and all the stylistic simplification and conformism implied, I think there is a sadness that comes with that. I wish there were others fighting in the same direction – I’m sure there are, but there’s just such a push towards mass satisfaction… and very much so also in arthouse cinema.
That’s a very interesting statement. In what way?
Nemes: In the way that the subject becomes more important than anything else. Also in the way the world is viewed through political and social lenses, within a paradigm of ‘the dominant vs the dominated’. That evokes very easy emotions in the audience, they see the world in a very simplified way – without questioning the essence of our existence. This is clearly breaking with the traditions of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and maybe a little bit after, of being bold and breaking the rules, and being metaphysical – not being a subsidiary to journalism and ‘educating the public,’ but thinking about the world in humanistic rather than socio-political terms. Again, no one talks about that aspect – and everybody jumps on that train very merrily.
Do you think that some people just feel that’s the best use of the medium for them?
Nemes: I think people use it to please the ‘sophisticated’ audience: in a way, it seems like an elitist tool that is disguising itself as filmmaking that is ‘accessible’ and ‘close to the people’.
Your story focuses on a strong female character. Where do you feel your film stands in the recent discussions addressing the role of women in society.
Nemes: Before recent years, I don’t think many would think of it that way, that I ‘made a film about a woman’. Turning women and men against each other is very trendy, but I am much more interested in a humanistic approach, in which the essence of feminine and masculine is more intertwined in human beings, and can’t be separated from an individual as happens in the industrial view of the world. I think we are entering a post-humanistic or anti-humanistic approach. Genders and races are turned against each other, disguised under a well-meaning egalitarian mask, a sense of generosity and justice. My film is about the mixing of male and female – you cannot separate that. It becomes almost imperative to make a film about women, because it’s not acceptable to make a film about men. But this comes with a very anti-humanistic sentiment: because you see the woman before you see the person. In the disguise of generosity, and in a struggle for equality, it actually achieves exactly the contrary.
You moved to France when you were twelve. Why did you decide to write your first films in Hungarian, and film everything back in Hungary?
Nemes: I spent a lot of time in France, and some time in the US as well. Making a film in Hungary made sense because I knew what I could expect, I knew how film crews worked there, and I could access financial support there more easily. But I’m certainly open to writing in other languages as well – I might be making my next project in English. I like the mixture of languages around me, but also inside me – that’s something that creates friction, and chaos, and has power, and I think it’s good. I think you can sense this in films as well: when there’s a layer of languages, even if you can’t understand them all, there is a whirlwind that’s created through this mix.
Why the Leiter family in particular?
Nemes: I wanted a family that had secrets, some of which could not be brought to light. I wanted to have this family, Irisz’s parents, who build the hat store, but then die before their daughter grows up. At the height of their success, they destroy themselves – and that mystery cannot be understood. It probably stems from the fact that I technically ‘have’ a family, but I don’t really have one: [I am] the child of divorced parents, who inherited the fragmentation after the holocaust. It’s a very complicated background. I think I wanted to convey this need to belong, and the importance of family, but at the same time the impossibility of having one. That’s probably why.
Why the hats specifically?
Nemes: They are a metaphor for the illusions of the world: hats cast shadows, and that has its consequences… They were also, of course, just an object from the everyday life of these people.
How was your relationship with your DP develop? You worked together on Son of Saul as well.
Nemes: I worked with him on my short films too. We’ve had a working relationship for years and years. We were contemplating what we wanted to do and how – the big questions in filmmaking. He has truly been an important partner in designing these films. Finding a team of people that challenged me was always important to me.
What compelled you to include that last scene?
Nemes: I talked about it with my creative partners a lot. Without spoiling the ending, I really wanted a sort of glimpse of what this society was heading towards. It was like a vision. I think there are hints of Kubrick throughout the film, but that last scene was an homage to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It’s also interesting to think about whose point of view that last scene is observed from. Is it the brother’s?
I loved the contrast between that very last scene and the rest of the film preceding it. I felt that it was underlining how caught up we can get with our own, personal drama and everyday life and family tragedies – to the point where we become oblivious to the bigger picture, the national or universal tragedies unfolding around us.
Nemes: That’s certainly one interpretation of it, yes.
Sunset plays in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 31 May
From László Nemes, the Oscar-winning director of Son of Saul comes this sublimely evocative recreation of 1913 Budapest, a city at the crux of world history. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) arrives in the capital eager to become a milliner at her late parents’ legendary hat shop. But she is drawn into the mystery of what happened to her long-missing brother. Her search will lead her into a dazzling panorama of the dying gasps of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Perfectly pitched between dream and nightmare, with real lives caught in the web of history, Sunset is a worthy successor to Son of Saul.