So many films about the endless atrocities of the Holocaust root themselves firmly in the humane. It’s a completely understandable, even elegant instinct, to seek dignity where none was afforded or retained, to argue that human beings are still capable of good or of hope or whatever other vestiges of our better selves were lost during that especially hideous chapter of modern human history. And yet, just the same, many of those films do little more than linger endlessly on the destruction of bodies. Again, a valid instinct; because we look upon it, because we forcibly remind ourselves of what man is capable of doing to itself when corrupted beyond known measure. Yet there is a voyeurism to many Holocaust narratives that is disquieting just the same, a sort of dioramic affect that can turn recollections of the worst of the concentration camps, the home raids, the medical experiments et al. into didacticism. The Holocaust was a lesson in the darkest heart of humankind, not simply an isolated episode that would be impossible to recreate, as is often argued for the sake of distance or even comfort.
Son of Saul is a recount of the Holocaust in barest form, closely following one person making his way through an endless hell that offers few solutions and fewer escapes. At times, László Nemes’ film induces the sensation of drowning, slowly. Not the kind where you’re pulled under by the riptide, but the kind where you’ve been treading water for so long that the body starts to betray you in tiny increments, and any life preserver must be met with utter desperation. Son of Saul is, intimately so, the story of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), an Auschwitz prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, a battalion of able-bodied men who were forced to serve as a sort of private police force for the Nazi forces in charge. These people were held separately from the rest of the camps, and as Son of Saul’s horrifying opening sequence suggests, were primarily tasked with leading groups of abductees to the gas chambers under auspices of showering them, and tidying up the aftermath before the next group came in.
Essential to Son of Saul’s narrative force is Nemes’ visual approach, which follows either Saul or the surrounding action in intimate, unavoidable close-up. As Saul makes his way through his daily rounds and vague, half-whispered rumors of an insurrection begin to mount even as the torturous routines continue unabated (one of the common practices of Auschwitz and other camps was to force members of the Sonderkommando to nominate their own for execution, as is noted here), Nemes uses a Steadicam approach to follow his protagonist in long, uninterrupted takes that center on Röhrig’s exhausted, defeated face. His countenance is one of resolution, except in a meager handful of key moments during which he’s given reason to hope. Namely, when he finds a child.
Son of Saul is propelled forward by Saul’s discovery of a young boy amongst the dead after a mass gassing, a boy who’s euthanized shortly thereafter. Rather than wait for the child to become another autopsy subject, Saul begins to piece together a plan in the meager seconds he can steal between rituals to liberate the boy, find a rabbi, and give him a proper Jewish burial. At once a brutal, grisly journey through a place of unimaginable evil and a parable about the human will to pursue hope, dignity, and some kind of freedom (however internal, however fleeting), the film is immersed in this notion of catharsis in the midst of the end of the world.
Nemes, in as arresting a debut feature as has graced cinema in some time, lingers on the terrors of Auschwitz in a way that’s less intrusive than it is immersive, brutally so. He finds observations in the in-between moments in Saul’s day: the impenetrable fog of smoke emerging from the crematorium every so often, the endless nude bodies being piled up in the background while Saul moves about, the visceral fear of happening to be in a room he’s not supposed to be in when a Nazi patrol happens to come in. This is not a vision of the concentration camps that obscures their most sadistic misdeeds; quite the contrary, in fact. But Son of Saul is less about Auschwitz, per se, than it is about what it was to stay alive in a place like that, and what doing so would do to even the strongest-willed among those who did.
The pacing is furious; the film never once relents from the nauseous tone of inevitability set in that early sequence, and as Saul attempts to scrap his way to a rabbi and to some sort of atonement or salvation via the body of the young boy, Son of Saul expands its universe to include the underground economies sustained in quick hallway encounters, the ones that protect certain Sonderkommando and even create ties between captor and victim. And, crucially, Son of Saul understands how many different forces conspired to facilitate it, and moves its endlessly suffering protagonist through as many of them as it possibly can.
The film’s photography is especially effective due to Nemes’ choice to confine the action to the 4:3 Academy ratio. Given the way in which cinematographer Mátyás Erdély frames Saul so centrally for so much of the film, Saul becomes the conduit through which we understand this world, one of senseless cruelty as an objective, constant reality. There is no hindsight, no comfortable distance through which the viewer can be gently reminded that the past is past. For Saul, there may as well be no past, though the bit about his own that is eventually revealed suggests ever more anguish long before Nemes catches up with him. There is no future, either; even as the furtive glances between prisoners begin to mount in frequency, Saul is only concerned with being able to lay a boy to rest. The endless claustrophobic passages give way to something deeply meaningful, and honest about a humanity drunk with unchecked power at its most hideous. And when Saul can barely go on, when he must be shoved along by his fellow Sonderkommando just to keep moving at all, Son of Saul watches. And follows. Because it knows he will, because he must.