Son of Saul,” first-time director Laszlo Nemes depicts one of the most morally ambiguous aspects of World War II, immersing audiences alongside a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Whereas nearly every other movie about Nazi death camps clearly delineates between victim and villain, “Son of Saul” takes place in the murky area in between, focusing on a Jewish prisoner who extends his own life by agreeing to do the Nazis’ dirty work, from ushering new arrivals into the gas chambers to disposing of the corpses.

Told in harrowingly immediate terms, the movie — Hungary’s foreign-language Oscar submission, which Sony Pictures Classics will release Dec. 18 — refuses to turn away from the horrors of the extermination-camp experience. At the same time, Nemes’ directorial style and tight framing virtually limits what audiences see to Saul’s face, or else the back of his head, while unspeakable things unfold either offscreen or out of focus behind him.

The 38-year-old Nemes, who lost much of his family to the Holocaust, was originally inspired by written testimonies recovered from Auschwitz. These were not survivor stories, like those that have served as the basis of so many other Holocaust movies, but accounts made by Jewish prisoners unsure of their fates, desperate to convey their awful reality to an unsuspecting outside world.

Of the roughly 9 million Jews living in Europe before the Holocaust, historians estimate that only a third survived. Whereas other films tend to focus on the exception, “I
wanted to talk about the rule, which is death,” says Nemes, who refused to soften his approach, even after backers in France, Israel, Germany and Austria turned him down. Ultimately, he raised nearly the entire $1.6 million budget via the Hungarian Film Fund, with additional support from the Claims Conference, which represents Jews seeking restitution for Nazi crimes.

“What disturbs me most in Holocaust films is that the events are always seen from a distance in space and time. You can feel a certain postwar separation; you’re not really there,” Nemes explains. “What I wanted to do was to make a film that captures how it felt to be inside the camp on a visceral level.”

Not everyone is on board with Nemes’ approach. Berlinale programmers passed on the film, and when it premiered a few months later in official competition at Cannes, several prominent French pundits took a stand against the movie. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis lambasted it as “radically dehistoricized, intellectually repellent,” suggesting that the white-knuckle obsession that drives Saul — putting his desire to bury a boy he imagines to be his son ahead of his own survival — minimizes the suffering of actual prisoners.

Honored Theme
Five feature films about Holocaust victims and survivors have won the foreign-language Oscar
The Shop on Main Street (1965) A Slovak merchant faces a moral dilemma when asked to take over the shop of a Jewish widow.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) Politics close in around a wealthy Jewish family enjoying the good life.
Life is Beautiful (1998) A father tries to convince his young son they’re not in a death camp; film also won an actor Oscar for director-star Roberto Benigni.
The Counterfeiters (Austria 2007) A Jewish counterfeiter is forced to help the Nazis make fake British currency.
Ida (Poland 2014) A teen about to become a nun faces the truth about her past in this spare road movie.

Apart from that initially skeptical wave, the tide has largely turned in Nemes’ favor. At Cannes, the jury feted his achievement, awarding “Son of Saul” the Grand Prix. Months later, the New York Film Critics Circle gave him best first feature, while their Los Angeles counterparts named the picture best foreign language film.

Among the earliest and most enthusiastic believers were Sony Classics chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who acquired the film in Cannes. “Every once in a while, you discover a debut film where you see a filmmaker who has an energy that’s so fresh and so cinematic that it kind of knocks you out,” says Barker, who hopes that “Son of Saul” can follow in the footsteps of noted director Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which earned five Oscar nominations for the distrib, including picture and director: “Over the years, we have
seen the Academy nominate foreign-language films in the major categories.”

From “Sophie’s Choice” to “Schindler’s List,” the Oscar-giving org also has a reputation for honoring Holocaust-themed pics. That said, no event since the invention of cinema has posed a greater challenge in terms of artistic representation, raising sensitive questions among survivors and historical scholars alike: Can a fictional account possibly do justice to the facts? Does dramatic license dilute the sheer horror of Hitler’s mass-extermination efforts?

Nemes is inherently skeptical of the conventional Hollywood solution for such material. “The classic style, which would represent (the extermination) camp with establishing shots, panoramas and overhead views, jumping between points of view, is problematic, because it does not reflect the human experience,” he says, stressing how disorienting the camps would have been to actual prisoners.

Though Saul’s story is invented, nearly everything else was based on 10 years of rigorous research, Nemes insists. Still, he never intended to build an exact replica of the camp, but rather adapted an early-20th-century agricultural warehouse outside Budapest, to reflect the place’s constant sense of confusion.

“What we wanted was to preserve or reconstruct the logic of space in Auschwitz, which was a factory building meant to kill people, but still a factory,” he says. “The idea was to make it impossible for the viewer to be able to understand the camp as a single coherent space, so it becomes a labyrinth in a way.”

According to Geza Rohrig, the Hungarian-born, New York-based actor and poet whom Nemes cast to play Saul, the character’s actions serve no immediate social ends — “What’s the point of trying to bury a kid in a place where thousands of kids go unburied?” he asks — but acknowledge the fact of death in a way few Holocaust films have.

“We are so fed up with the Disneyfied version of it,” the actor says. “We didn’t want anyone to cry, because crying is cathartic. We wanted to deliver a more lasting impact, a punch to the stomach or the throat.”