It’s hard to find the words to adequately describe the breathtaking magnitude and harrowing brilliance of Son of Saul. More than seventy years have passed since the liberation of the death camps but in that time cinema has struggled to ascertain how the worst atrocities of the Holocaust be portrayed on the big screen. The works of Spielberg and Lanzmann are now joined by one of the most impressive debut features of all time. Hungarian director László Nemes comes as close as is humanly imaginable to conveying the brutal inhumanity of the darkest chapter in modern history from within the walls of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a claustrophobic masterpiece of gut-wrenching bravura filmmaking.
Son of Saul opens with grave silence and a definition. The Sonderkommando were groups constituted mainly of Jews who assisted the Nazis in executing the Final Solution in exchange for paltry perks and a brief stay of execution from their own demise. From the depths of a blurred lens Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) comes into frame, shepherding new arrivals from a transport into a room where they undress and then enter a communal shower, all the while being told that a hot meal and jobs await them on the other side. Clearing out the “pieces” – as Jewish corpses are referred to here – he notices that a young boy, who may or may not be his son, has survived and is struggling for breath. These last gasps are swiftly extinguished by a doctor but from this point forward Saul’s sole motivation is to find a rabbi to utter the Kaddish to afford the boy a proper burial. This obsession alienates him from fellow prisoners, who are attempting an escape, but it offers Saul the slightest flicker of humane sanctity and redemption.
As will prove to be common over the course of the film this initial sequence is shot in a continuous long take, Mátyás Erdély’s camera capturing the exhausted detachment of Röhrig’s face in close up or sat at his shoulder, Saul’s gravitational pull dragging us one way or another with sickening curiosity. For many viewers the true horrors and clinical efficiency of the extermination live only in the imagination and in his use of a 4:3 ratio, shallow-focus and blurred backgrounds Nemes plays on pre-existing perceptions in our collective mind’s eye, clearly guiding what we can and cannot see. Framing his expressionless face at every opportunity, Saul’s reactions – told through eyes that betray a gamut of emotions – become our reactions. Though the periphery is often out of focus, our eyes and ears cannot escape what we know to be occurring: choked, guttural cries, lifeless bodies dragged across stone floors, thrown into heaps and burned outside or dumped in cages before succumbing to the flames of a furnace.
This is a punishing work that shows the sheer helplessness and hopelessness of a situation beyond comprehension. That Son of Saul is also Röhrig’s debut is astonishing. His performance, a mesmerising tour de force, is physically restrained but told with ferocious intensity through his eyes. The script – by Nemes and Clara Royer – is economical but combines multiple east-European languages well and never strays towards any sense of sentimentality, or even positivity, of any kind. No critical praise or festival plaudits can come close to telling what has been achieved here by a debut team already at the top of their game. It is in the devastating effect of seeing, experiencing and enduring the immersive, visceral horrors on show in Son of Saul, the screams and the banging of fists on walls, and his piercing final gaze that will haunt you long after it fades to black.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens