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László Rajk • Production designer

Son of Saul is the starting point for a new film language”


- Hungarian production designer László Rajk spoke to Cineuropa at the 2016 Visegrad Film Forum about his latest work: recreating Auschwitz for the critically acclaimed Son of Saul

László Rajk  • Production designer
(© Visegrad Film Forum)

Hungarian production designer and practising architect László Rajk visited the Visegrad Film Forum in Bratislava to talk about toying with perspective. Rajk’s latest work is visible in the winner of the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign-language Film, László Nemes Son of Saul [+see also:
film review
Q&A: László Nemes
interview: László Rajk
film profile
. He collaborated with Béla Tarr on The Turin Horse [+see also:
film review
interview: Béla Tarr
film profile
and The Man from London [+see also:
film review
film profile
, and he also worked on Ridley Scott’s latest effort, The Martian. Cineuropa sat down with him to discuss his work on Son of Saul and the emergence of a new film language. 

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Cineuropa: How did you prepare for the endeavour of designing the space in Son of Saul?
László Rajk:
Before working on Son of Saul, I designed an exhibition at the Auschwitz Museum; that’s why the research and ambiance were already clear to me. I was immediately able to start working on the movie with this strange film language. Personally, I am convinced that Son of Saul is the starting point for a new film language, where the space is described by human bodies and their movement within it. And most importantly, the space is described by noises, so the sound design and sound mix play an important role. We have already seen films like this, but in this case, you have it from the very beginning until the end. This is what I call a new film language – people do not see the space, but they understand it, and that is an interesting phenomenon. 

You probably studied some blueprints, correct?
The research had been done already. I invited history experts from the exhibition to the film set, so the team was ready and the backbone of the historical knowledge was there. However, I must say that it is very rare in filmmaking that you meet such educated people as DoP Mátyás Erdély and director László Nemes, who are very cultivated, with broad horizons of historical knowledge. In this regard, it was an easy connection to make and it was easy to reveal the historical information. Also, László started writing the script based on the so-called “Scrolls of the Sonderkommando”. People wrote diaries, and they rolled up the writings and hid them in tin cans or bottles, then buried them in the proximity of the crematorium. They were discovered around 1962 and published in the 1970s. Actually, László found these diaries when we were shooting Béla Tarr’s The Man from London in Corsica.

Did you know right from the beginning that the space would be limited to the edges of the frame?
I have worked on all of László’s films, and I would consider one of them, called With A Little Patience, the experimental laboratory for Son of Saul. You can see exactly the same style employed there, except that the camera is mounted on a dolly instead of being handheld, which creates more excitement than the dolly. Otherwise, it is very similar. We have all already seen those techniques with the camera focused on the protagonist and with the rest of the picture blurred; but creating this for the whole duration of a film is interesting.

Was this a factor when you were designing the sets?
It seems that you do not actually see the set, because you can only glimpse fragments, but when you take into account the movement of the camera, you see everything. So everything had to be made – we could not save money on something you don’t see, because you see everything. It might be blurred sometimes, but on another occasion, the protagonist is passing by and you get to see the detail in focus. The new experience for me was that it’s hard to tell the size of everything. You know the space, you know its structure and how it is connected, but you do not know how big it is, actually. I myself would not have been able to say in advance: “Don’t get flustered, guys; no one will see that those are small places,” and they are much smaller than in reality. I would not have been able to tell during the shoot. But when I saw the result, I was surprised that even I could not tell whether something was 10 x 5 metres or 100 x 60 metres. And this is very interesting; you understand the logic of the space, but you do not understand the size of it. 

You have mentioned that you always read scripts to find a certain piece of information to use as a reference point. What was this major information in the Son of Saul script?
The functioning of the crematorium. But I was the one who gave the description in order to enable everyone to think about movements and the order of the work around the crematorium – the changing room, the gas chamber, the lift... I would say that the technical aspects of how it worked were given to the writer by us. So in this case, it was the other way round: you could say the set was already ready when they started writing the script.

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