Son of Saul, the sensational, technically audacious and emotionally gruelling début feature film from 38-year-old Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, was one of the best reviewed films at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. It then went on to receive near-universal acclaim and was awarded Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. A horror film above all, this courageous work depicts two days in the life of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners enlisted to assist with the disposal of gas chamber victims for meagre rations – at one of the Auschwitz concentration camp crematoriums.
While Nemes’ camera rarely strays from an aggressive close-up of Röhrig face and body, we still bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and Saul’s role – the burning of the corpses and the looting of remaining possessions, amongst them. What he encounters on his mission – to find a rabbi amongst the newly herded prisoners willing to assist him bury the body of a young boy – is confronting cinema that viewers will find very tough to shake. The audience finds themselves, in a way, protected because they have a privileged alliance with Saul, whose dedication to survival results in a shield of incredible courage and resilience.
As he attempts to carry out this impossible deed of moral redemption and spiritual survival, some of his fellow workers are planning a rebellious uprising as the Sonderkommando is set to be liquidated. Tension mounts as he repeatedly turns on them and focuses his energy on saving this boy’s body from the flames. He is under close scrutiny at all times – any time Saul strays from the task at hand he attracts attention from the Nazi guards – so his efforts are extremely risky. He is disposable. Saul pleas, threatens and bribes to get what he wants, forever a marked man but not a hopeless one. Saul’s claim to be the boy’s father is doubted by fellow workers. Perhaps, sensing the end of his life approaching, he sees this as an opportunity to take on the squandered responsibility likely to haunt him to his grave.
Saul is the vessel through this nightmare; a side of the Holocaust that has rarely been explored in feature films. There have been documentaries that depict, in graphic detail, the extent of the evil, and films that possess a grim, intense power to rival this – Elen Klimov’s Come and See for example. The bold aesthetic choice to reduce the frame (a 1:1 squared ratio) restricts our breadth of vision, but amplifies Saul’s claustrophobic existence. Even when he emerges from the crematorium into the daylight, he finds himself surrounded by menace. These takes are long – involving hundreds of extras, impeccably researched and designed sets, and extraordinarily choreographed planes of action.
With such a shallow depth of field, everything in the foreground – the actors’ scorched, dirt-chapped faces most notably – is where all the emotional drama is projected. Rohrig’s performance is mesmerising, but all of the actors are tremendous. Nemes offers us the context, but resists going for gratuitous shock value, sharing the chaos through this individual’s struggle. He is not condemning the men in the Sonderkommando for what they were forced to do, but it feels like he removes them from responsibility. Most of the truly horrific acts of barbarity take place in the deep background out of focus, or off camera, by their Nazi overseers. So, I took Nemes’ approach to both serve to amplify Saul’s resolve, and express the Sonderkommando’s strict moral alienation.
The film’s weakness is that it asks for the necessary suspension of disbelief. Saul finds himself involved in a gauntlet of obstacles. I never doubted that I was watching an accurate recreation of one of these camps, but whether someone could have found themselves involved in so many different confrontations is a little hard to take. It is here that Nemes is indulgent, pushing his tour of the nightmare to the point of near-implausibility.
But, like The Revenant, which some viewers have criticised for similar reasons, it is such an immersive experience that one becomes so invested in the mission. An audience is asked to accept that it is a depiction of a world they cannot possibly relate to. Cinema offers us a perspective of the unknown; and in this case a perspective on a subject that could arguably be left alone. But, Nemes tackles it with a such a fierce and angry determination to educate that it becomes one of the essential works of the genocide.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Writer(s): Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont
Runtime: 107 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 25, 2016