"Son of Saul" is an immersive experience of the most disturbing kind, an unwavering vision of a particular kind of hell. No matter how many Holocaust films you've seen, you've not seen one like this.
A confident, audacious first feature by Hungarian director László Nemes and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, "Son of Saul" is carefully focused on a 36-hour period inside Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944.
It's not just the film's complete avoidance of special pleading and sentimentality, nor the concentration camp setting that makes "Son of Saul" simultaneously difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.
It's the powerful and impressive way director Nemes, his virtuoso cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, and the rest of the team combine aesthetic choices and cinematic techniques to give viewers a terrifying fictional glimpse of what it might have been like to be inside what Nemes has called "a factory producing and eliminating corpses on an industrial scale."
This glimpse is so potent and unprecedented that it overshadows the story of one man's quest that Nemes and his co-screenwriter, Clara Royer, have chosen to tell. To a certain extent that narrative functions as a device that enables us to see more of the charnel house chaos of Auschwitz-Birkenau (where part of Nemes' family was killed) than we would otherwise encounter, a skeleton key, in effect, to different circles of hell.
"Son of Saul" begins with text on screen defining the term Sonderkommandos, a particular group of prisoners used by the Germans to do the grunt work of extermination — soul-numbing tasks like removing and burning bodies from gas chambers and scrubbing the floors clean for the next group.
Also known as "bearers of secrets," the Sonderkommandos' specific knowledge mandated that they be housed separately from the rest of the camp and meant they worked only a few months before being executed themselves. (A compilation of writings left behind by Sonderkommandos was the film's inspiration.)
"Son of Saul" begins deliberately, with an out-of-focus shot. We see the outline of a man walking forward and into focus, and once the camera finds him, it shadows him like a second skin for the entire film, moving when he moves, stopping when he stops, looking where he looks, seeing only what he sees.
That takes exceptional preparation by cinematographer Erdély and intricate choreography with all the actors. Making things more complicated, Nemes favors long takes (he worked as an assistant to the similarly inclined fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr), so much so that this 1 hour, 47 minute film reportedly contains only 85 shots.
The man in question, Saul Auslander (the name translates as outsider or foreigner), a Hungarian who speaks a smattering of Yiddish and wears, as do the other Sonderkommandos, a jacket with an enormous red X on the back. He's effectively played by Géza Röhrig, a poet and sometime actor whose face here is sullen, impassive, to all intents and purposes dead to the world.
Saul works at one of Auschwitz's crematoriums (nightmarishly designed by production designer László Rajk in a warehouse outside Budapest and shot and intended to be theatrically projected in 35 mm for added visual texture). He is part of a team that herds terrified Jews to undressing rooms, where they are told they will be assigned jobs after they take "showers."
As each group is being gassed, Saul and his compatriots quickly dispose of their clothing (after searching it for valuables) and then deal with the corpses and the mess, all at double time.
Saul is consistently shot in shallow focus, which means that the dead bodies, the beatings, all the classic horrors of the camps, are visible only in the corners of the frame or half-glimpsed in the background. This normalization of nightmare both presents the world as Saul saw it and increases our shock that this kind of savage dehumanization could be experienced in such a business as usual way.
Essential in creating the nightmare ambience of the camp is "Son of Saul's" complex, layered soundtrack, which takes the place of a conventional score and assaults us with a constant barrage of screams and moans, the sounds of beatings and the off-screen desperation of people fighting not to die. Nemes told his superb sound designer Tamás Zányi that sound would create 50% of the movie, and he was not exaggerating.
The story co-writers Nemes and Royer place in this maelstrom is really quite a simple one. A boy unexpectedly survives, for a few minutes, the gas chamber, and when Saul sees him, he is seized by the idea that this boy is his son.
While the film is intentionally vague about whether the boy actually is Saul's son, there is no doubt about the nature of the man's ever more manic determination to find a rabbi to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for the boy, and then give him a proper burial.
Monomania can became tedious, even in a situation like this, but Saul's zeal takes him out of his usual routines and allows the film to take us on a kind of devil's walkabout and reveal other aspects of the camps. We see crematorium ashes being shoveled into a river, people being shot and shoved into pits en masse by the hellish light of flamethrowers, even the taking of clandestine photographs and the beginnings of a Sonderkommando rebellion (things that actually happened at Auschwitz).
Stunning as all this is, "Son of Saul" by definition lacks the ultimate horror provided by actual footage as seen in almost unbearable documentaries such as the recent "Night Will Fall." But that shouldn't take anything away from the accomplishment — and the necessity — of this film.
Careful to respect survivor Primo Levi's famous dictum about Auschwitz — "Here there is no why" — "Son of Saul" makes no attempt to explain events that in many ways remain beyond human comprehension.
But the film believes, accurately, that there is value in renewed attempts to depict what happened, that treating the Holocaust as something it would be sacrilegious to attempt to represent serves no purpose. It's essential for us as a culture to continually see and understand that this was not an aberration, that people did this to other people and could do it again. Having films like "Son of Saul" made and seen is our best hope of that not happening.
'Son of Saul'
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes