Son of Saul is a Holocaust drama set during the final year of the Auschwitz death camp in 1944, with Jewish prisoner Saul (Geza Rohrig) surrounded by death and a moral crisis: he lives out his shaky existence as a Sonderkommando: Jews responsible for ridding the camps of bodies through crematoriums. Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ first film is a feat of precise and focused filmmaking unlike any other this year, or any year for that matter.
As a visually minimalist film, though cinematically complex, director Nemes forces his camera on Saul, following him around in closeup as he stoically wrangles fellow Jews to their deaths. With a shallow focus, the background becomes distorted and out-of-focus, almost as if lacking a perceptive link to its own history. Rather than take on the immensity of the Holocaust, Son of Saul carefully depicts one man’s personal experience and plight through a sparse visual style that refuses to allow the audience to focus on anything but its protagonist.
Nemes’ camera is so fixated on Saul that we begin to visualize the worst, as far as our mental faculties will limit or allow us to. What the audience is disallowed visually, we gain through the sounds of death, roaring flames, and an oppressive German language. We know there are Jews dying in the gas chamber, but their deaths happen out-of-frame, their torturing bemoaned voices our only indication of what’s happening out of sight.
Names never claims to being able to depict the horrendous cruelty of the Holocaust in grandiose terms, but instead limits his lens at a withering humanity: whatever may be left of Saul’s soul-sucking shoveling of human ashes. Thus his film explores a personal and singular moral crisis, one seldom – if ever – explored in other Holocaust movies. This film’s sparseness adds to its moral crisis in a way that eschews cinematic norms, averting sentimental audience pandering. What remains is a harsh and brutally limited access to one man’s experience through a living hell.
While following one actor, for nearly the entirety of the movie, in a singular shot composition is an accomplishment in its own right, it takes an even greater talent for the subject to singularly capture the film’s ethos. Géza Röhrig does an incredible job giving a cynical performance as the hopeless Saul. His face becomes statuesque, his facial expressions failing to elicit even a smile, his eyes cast down, dutifully staying out of trouble for the sake of survival. How can one survive when humanity has been drained from his own face, from his very existence?
Of all places, Saul finds a reason to live in a dying boy that somehow, almost like an omen of hope, survived the gas chambers. With labored breathing, the boy barely clings to his remaining existence, while Saul obsesses over his body in the hope the boy can have a proper burial. Saul embarks on his pious crusade to find a Rabbi in the camp to perform the duty, sacrificing his security to redeem himself of the atrocities of his work as a Sonderkommando. Saul’s quest is not simply to bury the boy with honor, but to avoid the infernal fate in the furnace that befell so many others.
Son of Saul is the most powerful and harrowing film released this year. Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes takes on the brutality of the Holocaust with honesty and care, showcasing one man’s horrid crisis in the most despicable of times and circumstances imaginable.