A chat with Mátyás Erdély, the cinematographer of Son of Saul and Sunset
Oct. 25. 2018.
He wasn’t rolling in offers after the Oscar for Saul, but he does not see it as a tragedy. We contacted Mátyás Erdély in London, where he is shooting the new Jude Law film. An Interview by TAMÁS SOÓS.
Revizor: Why did you not shoot any films between Son of Saul and Sunset? One would think the cinematographer of an Oscar winning film would be bombarded with opportunities.
Mátyás Erdély: I was contacted many times, but I did not fall in love with any of the projects. I am interested in bold films with a unique concept either visually or in terms of dramaturgy. Son of Saul was like that, so I was hoping to attract some directors who have similarly interesting plans, but alas, that did not happen. 
R: Were you disappointed?
EM: A little, but I don’t see it as a tragedy. There is the so-called Oscar curse, according to which you will not work after winning an Oscar. I had my share of that, but I did have some work in the past three years. Currently I am in London, shooting the second film of Sean Durkin, the director of Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon. Sean and I collaborated before on an English TV series, Southcliffe. This one is a sensitive family drama, I find it very inspiring. 
R: And Sunset?
MA: That was an astonishing, gigantic beast that was a joy to tackle. A really giant movie with enormous scenery, complex movements, and so many extras that I could not cope with the lights and the camera at the same time. For the first time in my life we worked the American way: I became the director of photography, and only dealt with the lights, and György Rédely stood behind the camera. He already substituted me once, when towards the end of Son of Saul I strained my ankle. 
R: Was it obvious from the start that you would use the same approach in Sunset that worked in Son of Saul? Subjective style, clinging to the protagonist, long cuts?
Mátyás Erdély, Gáza Röhrig
Mátyás Erdély, Gáza Röhrig
ME: After Son of Saul we wanted to do something different, but we did a few trials using wide shots and a dolly, and it became apparent that the format won’t match the film. The subjective language used by László Nemes Jeles requires a hand-held camera. It doesn’t place the viewers into an objective, descriptive point of view, it summons them to join the protagonist, and make them see or overlook the same things. Sunset is the story of a continuous search, and as Írisz explores these spaces, she advances towards knowledge and getting lost. László called Sunset a labyrinth film. It would lose its power if the space was pushed to the background. 
R: Reviewers stressed the similarities of Son of Saul and Sunset. How would you describe the differences?
ME: The two films uses similar tools but to totally different ends. The fundamental thought of both is subjectivity and long cuts, but in the case of Son of Saul the style originated in the belief that the horrors of the Holocaust should not be shown. A filmmaker cannot do it, and the character does not wish to see either, as he tries to survive the death camp by turning away. In other words, Son of Saul is about what cannot be shown, Sunset is about what cannot be known. 
R: Sunset was controversial among viewers, as it provided no definite answers, left them in uncertainty. 
EM: If the viewers feel lost, it is because the protagonist is lost too. A film can be lyrical and work like a poem, but nowadays not many directors build on that. Films today exclusively project a God-like viewpoint, from which everything in the world makes sense. Like in a fairy tale, we know that the wolf is hiding in the bush, and we shout out to Little Red Riding Hood to watch out. But László says we do not know where the wolf is, we do not even know who the wolf is. 
R: But if we make everything uncertain, won’t that lead to saying there are no answers, only questions can be asked about why Europe destroyed itself?
ME: I do not want to give the impression that facts are relative, but let us remember, this film does not wish to investigate from today’s viewpoint what happened in 1913, it places the viewers into the head of an orphaned girl of that period, and from there it tries to make sense of senselessness. The film does not state that it is impossible to tell what lead to the breakout of World War I, it says that in 1913 probably no-one had a grasp of these processes. 
R: Were you adamant that you wanted to end the film with World War I?
ME: We had a lot of discussions about how the film should end. I advocated for the World War, because it is important to establish the contrast between the first and last scenes, the first and last faces we see. The last scene was the only one that we shot on 65 mm film as opposed to 35 mm, because I wanted to set the softness of the blurry images against the hyperrealist resolution of the 65 mm, so that the beauty of the earlier frames are transformed into the chaos of the World War. 
R: With Son of Saul you were touring the world for a year. Did you have important encounters like László had with Spielberg or Claude Lanzmann?
ME: I had a memorable experience with Janusz Kaminski, Spieldberg’s cinematographer. Munich was being shot in Budapest, László was there as an assistant, I was there as an intern. I did not do anything, I merely followed Kaminski around, and I watched the incredible efficiency with which he and Spielberg worked. When Son of Saul was nominated for the Oscar, I thought about writing him the next day. By the time I woke up, he had already sent me an email, saying that he had seen the film, it was fantastic, and it would win the Oscar. It was thrilling to find out that he remembered me, his intern way back then. We met several times in America, and our master-apprentice relationship has almost developed to collegiality. 
R: What does the Oscar you got for Son of Saul mean to you?
ME: When at the age of fifteen I decided to become a cinematographer, I saw myself shooting an Oscar winning film once. It’s amazing that it actually happened. But the award in itself is not important; the film we created is important. And the moral of the story is that we need to march on and do our work without compromise.