How architect Laszlo Rajk designed the crematorium set for Holocaust drama Son of Saul

The film doesn’t show much of Rajk’s set but it was essential in setting the mood of the story set in the Nazi death camp

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 8:00am

Many things are visible in Son of Saul, the harrowing Oscar-nominated film set in a crematorium at Auschwitz. There is the dead-eyed stare of the protagonist, Saul (played by Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian man who, as a Sonderkommando, is a prisoner forced to do the Nazis’ dirty work for them. And there are the moments of abject horror: anonymous bodies pushed into ovens and people shot in front of pits.

Less visible is the thoughtfully constructed set. For the duration of Son of Saul, the film keeps its focus on Saul; the environment barely reveals itself at the edge of the frame. But the set, designed by Hungarian architect Laszlo Rajk, was essential to the film’s taut energy.

Long takes – some of which were three and four minutes long and accomplished with a hand-held camera – meant that many of the sets needed to be complete rooms that could accommodate 360-degree shooting. This required Rajk to re-create a Nazi crematorium in an abandoned 1912 warehouse on the outskirts of Budapest so that director Laszlo Nemes could follow his character with the camera from gas chamber to incineration spaces in continuous shots.

Auschwitz is a subject Rajk (pronounced Roik) knows well. He designed the Hungarian exhibition at Auschwitz in 2014 and first visited the camp as a university student in the late 1960s, before recent restoration work and more high-tech exhibitions had been added.

“It was the poverty of communism,” he says. “All of these things were run-down. In a way, the atmosphere was much closer to the atmosphere of a death camp.”

Over his long career, Rajk, 67, has built industrial buildings, cultural halls and shopping centres. He has also designed sets for numerous Hungarian and international films, including big-budget Hollywood productions (He helped create the mission control set for The Martian).

Rajk spoke via telephone recently from Iceland, where he is on location for another film (a thriller about a young girl). In this lightly edited conversation, he talks about his design process, what he has learned about Nazi architecture and why every architect should design at least one movie set in their lifetime.

What kind of research did you do to design the crematorium?

I designed the Hungarian exhibition in Auschwitz in the Auschwitz museum over a decade ago, so I had all the research and almost everything ready. The blueprints of those buildings survived. They were found in the offices after the liberation of the camp. There is all of this data about how it was designed.

That is a striking phenomenon. It’s a very thoughtful design. It’s professional work. It was hand-drawn, so it’s really this almost human touch in the drawing. But it really raises the responsibility of professionals in general, whether you accept a job like this or not. Sometimes my stomach would shrink to think that someone in the morning was taking a shower and was thinking about how to create a more effective crematorium.

In an interview, Nemes talked about how the set you designed really affected the psychology of the cast and crew. What did it feel like to enter this space?

When the set was ready, Matyas (Erdely, the cinematographer), Laszlo and I went through the set and I was explaining the connections. We were leaving the gas chamber and someone slammed the door on Matyas. And immediately we open the door and there is this young man, completely pale. His grandfather’s family was killed in Auschwitz. It was this speechless moment where you stand there and you see the effects.

It’s curious, because the film doesn’t show much of the set, yet it was essential to establishing its mood.

It’s a very strange experiment that you are doing, because you are not establishing the space through pictures. But rather you trust that the movement of the human body, through gestures, sights, through the eyes, will convey what the space is about.

The other element was the noises, the sound design. The sound mixture was very important in that film because it’s not only adding to the story, it’s adding to the architecture. Through the noises you start to understand what type of space you are in.

When you were designing the Hungarian exhibition at Auschwitz, what was your primary concern? How did you work with that space?

The exhibition is in the barracks, in the blocks of the original camp, where prisoners lived. It’s Number 18. I started to know not only the building but also the detailed structures, how they looked. Most of those buildings were built by prisoners, and their work is very professional. That is a very striking fact – that those people who would be dying in three weeks or three months, they are meanwhile carrying out very professional carpentry and masonry.

When it came time to think about the exhibition design, I started to think about the six million people who are missing – missing grandsons, missing descendants, this lack of people. I wanted to make visible what it means to be missing.

Also, I know that such a design is not for myself. It’s not for my generation. It’s for future generations. The whole structure of the exhibition is very much based on internet structures. It’s not based on chronological order. There is not an obligatory path that you walk through. It’s very free. You start wherever you want.

Did you lose family in the Holocaust?

No. My family is not Jewish. But my father and mother were members of the Resistance during the second world war.

Architecture and set design are different in the sense that one is about creating shelter and the other illusion. But they are also both about creating environment.

Yes! And I think all architects should design sets. A set can be done in three months and it pushes back the ego of architects who think this is my thing and no one should ever touch it. It’s this provisional temporary architecture, and however good it is, it eventually is taken apart and stays only virtually in pictures.

Plus, you learn a lot of tricks in production design, like how to cheat. That is very important when you think about perspective.

How do you see the set for Saul fitting into the history of set design?

Lately I’m realising that, in a way, Saul is kind of a beginning of a new approach to sets. At the beginning, there were the movies by [D.W.] Griffith and Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. They built huge sets. The director saw it, the actors saw it, the audience saw it.

The next period is when people are jumping around in a green box so that the actor doesn’t see any of the set, the cinematographer doesn’t see anything of the set – but the audience does. They are the only ones who see the whole set.

Son of Saul is the reverse of that. The director sees the set, the actor sees the set, but the audience doesn’t see. But that proves the complexity of what a movie is: they don’t see, but they understand.

Los Angeles Times

Son of Saul opens on March 3