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Oscar winner 'Son of Saul' is a collage of the unimaginable

Oscar winner 'Son of Saul' is a collage of the unimaginable
Director Laszlo Nemes for "Son of Saul" accepts the Oscar for foreign language film. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The slaughter is at once blurry and succinct, flickering incessantly through the clanging inner-workings of a Nazi death camp, where Jewish slave workers known as Sonderkommandos lead fellow Jews to gas chambers, collecting  their wallets, jewels and shoes in a cruel and final degradation.

"Son of Saul," winner of this year's Academy Award for foreign language film, is a collage of the unimaginable.  In his feature debut, Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes revisits the Holocaust through the eyes of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a man given a brief reprieve from his own demise by carrying out the nightmarish vision of his captors at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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The camera inhabits Saul. We see what he experiences, much of it out of focus as if a man hurrying through and trapped in horror.  Our minds fill in the obscurities, lending fresh understanding and unnerving perspective. The pace is relentless, with long camera takes and hand-held jitteriness.  There is no escape from the clatter of feet, the burning of corpses and the quick breaths of ticking-down survival.

Each of the foreign films nominated this year is an intimate story told against larger cruelties. "Embrace of the Serpent" from Colombia explores the painful residue left from years of colonialism in the Amazon. "A War" from Denmark deals with the moral consequences of  the Afghanistan war.  France's entry, "Mustang," is the tale of girls trying to break the grip of traditionalism in a Turkish village, and "Theeb" from Jordan  is an Arabic coming-of-age saga set against the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

"Son of Saul" traces the fate of a ghost-like everyman caught in a wicked time.  It has the power of a documentary and the poetic barbarism of the best Holocaust films, including Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." "Son of Saul,"  shot by cinematographer Matyas Erdely,  is more visceral and claustrophobic than that film, plunging deeper into an all-consuming madness that extinguishes hope the instant it glimmers.

It is a reminder that humanity is ingrained with savagery whether it be in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Rwanda, South Sudan or the Nazis' factories of death.  Saul is enveloped by it, so much so that he convinces himself that a dead boy in the camp is his son.  He searches for a rabbi to read prayers for burial. It gives him a frantic man's purpose, but it is a quest that crushes the soul.

"This is the thing you forget about the Holocaust — the human face. It becomes mass. I wanted to focus on one man," Nemes told The Times in January.

"Son of Saul" is "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," Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote in his review. "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."

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