The Holocaust has been filtered through all manner of cinematic prisms, from the harrowing non-fiction lenses of Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to the piercing epic fictionalizations of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Yet despite having been the subject of innumerable documentaries and dramas, the Germans’ WWII extermination of six million-plus Jews has rarely been treated with more excruciating, uncompromising intimacy than in Son of Saul. The story of a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, László Nemes’ directorial debut thrusts one into the grim despair and misery of that infamous killing ground, forcing viewers to not only imagine the seemingly unimaginable, but to feel it – to breathe in the smell of charred flesh, to kneel on the filthy floors of the gas chambers, to wash the remains of your comrades out from under your fingernails. It’s a work of almost intolerable unpleasantness. And it’s also the most viscerally affecting (and morally vital) Holocaust film since Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar-winner.
Nemes’ maiden feature concerns a Hungarian Jew named Saul (Géza Röhrig) who’s a member of Auschwitz’s Sonderkommandos unit, which is responsible for helping the Nazis herd prisoners into the death houses, drag the corpses out, load them onto lifts that take them to incineration rooms, scrub the ovens clean, and rummage through the dead’s clothes for valuables. Saul exists in a very real sort of Hell, and the film opens with the first of many long, impressively choreographed single-take scenes in which the camera situates itself right next to Saul, capturing him in sweaty close-ups either from the front or from behind. With the director utilizing a constricting 1.33:1 aspect ratio and shallow focus, Son of Saul is persistently fixated on its protagonist, and as he sets about his daily toil, the barbarity and cruelty of his environment is gleaned through fleet, fuzzy glimpses on his periphery (a neatly stacked pile of bodies here, a whipping and cold-blooded execution there), or through a soundscape of screams, gunfire, and whispered snippets of conversations.
Son of Saul’s plot is instigated when a young boy miraculously survives the gas chamber, and Saul witnesses a Nazi doctor finish the child off by suffocating him with his bare hands. This solitary murder stirs something in Saul, and he sets about attempting – against his own sense of self-preservation, or care for the welfare of other inmates – to find a rabbi who’ll help him give the dead kid a proper burial. It’s an impossible, and impossibly foolish, task, and one made even crazier by the fact that it’s unclear if the boy is Saul’s son (as he soon claims), or if he’s just a stranger (as Levente Molnár’s fellow prisoner Abraham suggests). More pressing than that point, however, is the larger question of the justness of Saul’s cause: is his interest in honoring this one innocent soul an act of decency amidst so much bleak depravity, or is it an example of mad selfishness at the expense of the greater good? Or, perhaps, is it both?
The inconclusiveness of those issues results in a narrative fugue that’s in keeping with the action’s general atmosphere of confusion, panic, distrust, and self-loathing – all of which is felt in images of Jews being corralled by barking Nazi officers, of Jews (some turned into vicious oppressors of their own people) treating each other with suspicion and nastiness, and of Saul’s paranoid fear and urgency masked beneath a stoic façade. However imprudent, Saul embarks on his quest with single-minded abandon. In the process, he puts into jeopardy the plans of a revolt (and escape) that’s scheduled for the next day – before the Nazis massacre Saul’s entire Sonderkommandos group – and eventually leads him to a nearby shore where men are forced to shovel human ashes into the water, and at the “pits” where newly arrived Jews are torched by SS flamethrowers and dumped into mass graves.
Led by a commanding performance by Röhrig, whose large eyes articulate everything his face and voice do (and can) not, Son of Saul rigorously conveys a sense of what it’s like to be in its main character’s shoes. That, in turn, makes it the most distressing film of the year. Mátyás Erdély’s harried handheld cinematography (awash in rotting yellows and browns) and Tamás Zányi’s chaotic audio design allow the director to create a technically audacious aesthetic that’s intensely attuned to Saul’s (and his fellow captives’) frantic, debased physical and psychological condition. Whereas past Holocaust movies’ black-and-white visuals, traditional dramatic staging and/or voiceover-enhanced newsreel footage helped foster distance between viewer and material, Nemes’ style negates any such safe detachment. It’s an up-close-and-personal trip back to the worst moments of the 20st century – one that brings immediate tears to the eyes, and then becomes so monotonously terrible that, like Saul, one starts to become dismally numb to it all.
If Son of Saul aims to disturb and repulse, it does so with the same sort of fierce, unwavering purpose that guides its protagonist. Just as Saul risks everything in order to perform one humane act amidst so much dreadfulness, so too does the director risk alienating his audience in order to provide a reminder – without sensationalistic embellishment, or comforting technique, or inapt optimism – of what the Holocaust really was, and to what anti-Semitism can ultimately lead. Free of familiar clichés or contextual details that might make its material go down easier, the film compels us to see, to hear, and to suffer in order to fully comprehend. Far from merely an exploitative horror show designed to shock and repel for the sake of cheap kicks, it forces us, severely and angrily and heartbreakingly, to look and to listen at one man’s plight, so that we might truly remember – and never forget – the ugly reality of what happened to generations of innocent Jews. With global anti-Semitism on the rise, that moral imperative is as important today as it’s ever been. And it makes Nemes’ unflinching, unbearable debut a testament to the awful, eternal necessity of bearing witness.