Creating buzz within critics’ circles and crowning its mountain of garlands with an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, László Nemes’s debut feature film, Son of Saul, teeters on innumerable expectations. Yet instead of fading into the depths of the numerous Holocaust-focused films springing out of the industry over the past decade, Son of Saul’s peculiar narrative strain and its wonderfully wrought perspective make it both brutal and bleak in an entirely different way.
Centred upon Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz, the film follows him during his daily work in one of the death camp’s many sonderkommandos: herding new arrivals into the gas chambers, picking their clothes for valuables, and disposing of their corpses shortly afterwards. In focusing upon Saul, Nemes’s debut is gifted with a protagonist who ruminates inwardly and silently amidst a chaos that whirls around him. Mystery embeds Röhrig, and his motivation to give a dead child an honourable religious burial is shrouded by his listless expressions and weary, entrenched face. Indeed, the internal battles against the external as Saul’s fortitude to traverse the multiple work units in search of a Rabbi risks his safety and loyalty to his fellow prisoners, who surreptitiously plan an insurrection before they are inevitably sent to their deaths themselves.
Whilst Lanzmann’s Shoah staggers with its overwhelming commitment to historicity, and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List sweeps you up with its epic cast of figures and unapologetic brutality, Son of Saul is diminutive in its approach to the Holocaust narrative, fixing its target upon one man and one world rather than dazzling with historical characters and dejecting with its scope of lives lost and horrors committed. The result is an injection of heightened realism: the camera, for a large portion of the film, shadows Saul, following him and resting upon his face as he labours. Nemes’s use of shallow focus renders Saul’s environment distorted, the naked corpses piled on top of one another blurred, the white smoke from the cremations cancelling out all but Saul’s solitary figure. Rather than producing an emotional reaction from the visceral display of visual atrocities, Nemes renders us extra-sensitive by only partially revealing these images to us, by only allowing us to hear the screeches and cries from the gas chamber, by forcing us to confront and imagine for ourselves the whole.
Yet this fragmentation is not solely exclusive to its scenery: the relationship between Saul and the dead child is only surmised and never handled until a brief – yet emotionally weighty – scene towards the finale, and characters never project their pasts and livelihoods onto the narrative. The hyper-realism is engrossing, and Nemes’s debt to Hungarian great Béla Tarr is evident in his commitment to it. He moulds the film into a glimpse of one man’s present, carving it with a sense of immediacy and mystery that refuses to comfort its audience with detailed summaries and historical figures and information. Röhrig is impenetrable as Saul, deadened to the horror that encloses him and remaining largely expressionless and thin-lipped until choice moments of anxiety and desperation. His eyes loom wide as the point of a gun touches his neck when a bid to convince a rabbi to assist him fails, yet an encounter with a woman he was once acquainted with does not draw a flicker of life from him. Saul is both alive and dead, and an incredible encapsulation of Nemes’ vision for a historical narrative that has been approached in every way but this.
Son of Saul is not an epic dramatization of the Holocaust, but a small glance at a particular livelihood already in the midst of it, a portrait of an ordinary man eroded by atrocity. There are no graphically violent images or blazes of fire to whet an audience’s appetite for the extreme; only the exhausted and detached visage of a man attempting to find something moral, something honourable, to strive for. Whether Saul finds this is debatable, but it is exactly what we find in Son of Saul.