Possessed by the same single-minded intensity that drives its protagonist’s every step, “Son of Saul” plunges the viewer into a hell that exists beyond the limits of comprehension or representation. A terrifyingly accomplished first feature for 38-year-old Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes, this indelible portrait of Auschwitz in the latter days of WWII sticks to the limited vantage of a Jewish prisoner who, immune to either hope or fear, becomes bent on carrying out a single, desperate act of moral survival. The result is as grim and unyielding a depiction of the Holocaust as has yet been made on that cinematically overworked subject — a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload that recasts familiar horrors in daringly existential terms. Further festival bookings, post-screening arguments and a narrow commercial life are assured for this rare debut film to secure a competition berth at Cannes.
Boldly courting the kind of debate about how (or whether) the Nazi death camps should be depicted that dates back at least as far as Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985), “Son of Saul” is likely to draw admiration and outrage alike: Does its uncompromising restraint and formal rigor serve as a corrective to the sensationalism and sentimentality favored by Hollywood, or does it merely substitute one form of exploitation for another? To the credit of Nemes (who co-scripted with Clara Royer), his immersive yet powerfully withholding film is clearly built for, and comfortable with, a measure of moral ambiguity. Not for nothing does the story center around a fictional member of the Sonderkommandos, those Jewish workers who were forced to assist in the mass murder and disposal of their own, delaying their own executions by mere months.
The wretched fate of these custodians of death — their uniquely up-close perspective on the workings of the Final Solution and the unspeakable guilt they suffered for their participation — was addressed earlier in not only “Shoah” but also Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone” (2001), which starred David Arquette as an American-accented Jewish captive in an ensemble drama too archly stylized for its own good. Nemes’ film, by contrast, distinguishes itself in both its verisimilitude and its unrelenting focus on one individual, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig, making his own exceptional screen debut), a Hungarian Jewish man who works with a Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It’s typical of the ruthlessness of the film’s approach that we first encounter Saul on the job, as he and his fellow workers come alongside a group of new arrivals and steer them into the “undressing room.” The discretion and matter-of-factness of the horror only makes it that much more unsettling: We hear screams briefly issuing forth from the gas chambers, but the camera doesn’t venture inside until afterward, when Saul and the others are dutifully removing the bodies and scrubbing down the walls and floors in preparation for the next group. Business as usual.
One of the film’s scrupulously observed ground rules, then, is that we will see only what Saul sees, and Nemes and his gifted cinematographer Matyas Erdely fully commit to this persistence-of-vision tactic by filming in long, unbroken handheld shots that can last for minutes (the film’s clearest debt to the ascetic style of Hungarian master Bela Tarr, for whom Nemes served as an assistant director on 2007’s “The Man From London”). Their decision to shoot on 35mm film stock lends the images an immense tactility and subtle richness of color, even within the squalid, shadowy camp interiors (as expertly re-created by production designer Laszlo Rajk). Meanwhile, the shallow-focus compositions and the use of the Academy aspect ratio have the effect of placing Saul’s head at the center of the almost square frame, while the action behind him — including, pointedly, most of the violence and nudity that another film might have foregrounded — remains an out-of-focus blur. It’s a perfect visual representation of a mental state that has long since absorbed the unthinkable.
The experience of watching “Son of Saul,” then, is not unlike that of navigating the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno with the Dardenne brothers (at least during the extreme-ear-cam phase that produced 2003’s “The Son”). Notably, however, Saul is no aimless wanderer but rather a man on a mission, spurred into action when he finds that a young boy has somehow survived the gas. The child is quickly put to death, but Saul, for reasons hinted at by the title but not explained until later, can neither look away from his face nor allow him to be cut open by a doctor (Sandor Zsoter), as official regulations dictate. From that point onward, Saul will have only one goal: not to survive or escape, but to find a rabbi who can give the boy a proper Jewish burial. It’s an unthinkably dangerous, foolhardy objective, especially on the eve of a long-planned prisoner uprising (situating the film’s action right around Oct. 7, 1944), and it will require Saul to defy captors and collaborators alike, resorting to all manner of manipulation, blackmail, fast thinking and quick, decisive action.
One of the key achievements of “Son of Saul” is that without deviating from Saul’s perspective, it succeeds in mapping out an intricate network of relationships among the Sonderkommandos, the Oberkapos (their superior officers) and the SS guards (two of whom are played by Uwe Lauer and Christian Harting). In a series of tense exchanges and negotiations, an entire world of moral compromise reveals itself: You hear the shame and self-loathing in the Sonderkommando members’ voices, but you also sense that they’ve used their positions to gain leverage with the enemy. Remarkably, Saul seems to act with utter fearlessness, and he’s particularly good at capitalizing on the chaos around him, especially when the Nazis, aware of encroaching Russian soldiers, speed up their killing frenzy and lose all semblance of control. As one Jew notes in a rare on-the-nose line of dialogue, “We’re already dead,” and for Saul, at least, the truth of that statement becomes its own curious form of liberation.
A measure of confusion over what’s going on and who’s who — like Saul’s fellow workers (some of whom are played by Levente Molnar, Marcin Czarnik and Kamil Dobrowlsky), or a young woman (Juli Jakab) who’s helping them with the uprising — is an entirely fitting response. True to his unstintingly realistic approach, Nemes is in no hurry to dispel our disorientation, explain the plot, or clarify the clash of Hungarian, German and Yiddish languages at various points. Yet he excels at drawing the viewer into a state of heightened attentiveness that matches his protagonist’s own. To identify with Saul would be presumptuous and beside the point, but by film’s end there’s no denying the sense of shared intimacy with this most bleakly engaging of companions.
The prolonged assault of the filmmaking won’t be to all tastes — particularly the sound work by Tamas Zanyi, who almost seems to be overcompensating for the picture’s visual restrictions with its cacophonous layering of screams, shouts, frenzied whispers, gunshots and unplaceable background noise. But few will argue with the sustained grip and power of the film’s central performance: Rohrig, an amazing find, requires no grand speeches or overtly introspective moments to hold our attention for nearly every second of the 107-minute running time. His eyes seem to radiate a determination and moral clarity that extends beyond the here and now, his actions suggesting a desperate will to believe in a God who could scarcely seem more absent. For Saul, and for Nemes’ galvanizing film, the acceptance of death is no excuse for the rejection of meaning.