MOVIES made about the Holocaust are, for obvious reasons, a contentious topic. There’s the dichotomy between sensitive depiction and garish flippancy, the clash between Hollywood schmaltz and grim realism. For many, documentaries like Shoah or Night and Fog are the closest that films can come to capturing this atrocity, and much of the footage in said films is culled from the camps verbatim, without the garnish of fiction. What I’m trying to say is this: For every Schindler’s List, there’s a Jakob the Liar, and both are manipulative in their own ways.
Son of Saul enacts no such manipulation on its audience. There are no strings in the background to emotionally blackmail us; no maudlin speeches at a gravestone; no empty platitudes to lull us into complacency. It is stark, immediate, and brutal in its ethics and efficiency. It never steps onto a soapbox and lists off the things we should feel and why we should feel them at any particular moment; the reasons are there, printed bold onscreen, and there is nothing beautiful or uplifting to be found.
First-time director László Nemes and his crew shuns over-acting and melodrama for clinical, simple depiction, with an incredible central performance by Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian poet with no prior feature film experience. This is raw and deeply powerful filmmaking at its finest, with a simple narrative propelled by the action (and inaction) of its protagonist in an environment where he is utterly, tragically powerless.
That environment is Auschwitz, where our protagonist, Saul (Röhrig), is a member of the Sonderkommando, an ad hoc unit of inmates working beneath the SS (under pain of death) to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims. Forced to guide the victims to their deaths, rifle through their clothes for valuables and scrub the chambers of their remains thereafter, Saul’s routine unravels when a boy whom he attests to be his son is killed before his eyes. In the middle of other inmates’ preparations to mount a rebellion, Saul desperately searches for a rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
Röhrig is phenomenal, let it be said, and he needed to be; the camera is trained on him for 95% of the film’s 100 minute duration, and his expression never changes from total, impassive stillness. A far cry from the emotional grandstanding one might expect from such a character, Röhrig’s eyes are sunken and downcast, his gaze a thousand miles ahead, unblinking. He says so much with so few words, many of which are questions or moot statements. His sparseness of expression perfectly reflects the sparseness of his environment.
His performance is reminiscent of Alexsey Kravchenko’s dead-eyed stares in Come and See, a similarly apocalyptic recount of a massacre. Son of Saul is no less harrowing, but much of its horror is visually obscured or aurally inferred. Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély employ shallow focus throughout and film much of the action in close-up, the lines in Saul’s face palpable and painful. In the periphery of the frame, beyond his face, blurred out, are bodies being dragged out of the chambers; fire and brimstone in the dead of night – in short, the horrors of Auschwitz and the concentration camps.
Along with utilising Academy ratio to render the screen narrow and portrait-like, throwing this focus into sharper relief, it brilliantly signifies how Saul has numbed himself to his surroundings. It also suggests his single-mindedness in his objective; only that which is directly relevant to his task, or what he currently perceives, is shown in focus with him. Though, at heart, deeply cinematic, this emphasis on shallow focus and close-ups brings an abiding sense of intimacy to proceedings, oftentimes uncomfortably so. The agonisingly long takes reinforce this, as we follow Saul from one horror to the next, the camera resolutely trained on him all the while.
While Come and See employs a haunting score and classical compositions, Son of Saul’s aural landscape is purely diegetic. There are no piano notes to distract us from the crushing immediacy of screams from the gas chambers. The rising desperation of hundreds of fists rattling the doors is undiminished by orchestra stirs. The sound of gunfire from off-screen speaks for itself. Eight different languages howl in fractured unison. Our imagination tells us all we need to know, and it accomplishes so much more than merely showing us the act. As this suffering is peripheral to Saul, it is peripheral to us, but it is no less present to us or him.
His face, however, says more than anything else can. It can’t tell us everything he has witnessed, but it can give us an impression. That impression is one of immense darkness, but Son of Saul is remarkable for delving headlong into that darkness. For a veteran director, this would be brave – for a debutante, it is nothing short of astonishing. Nemes doesn’t kowtow to catharsis, nor does he embellish or poeticise; he simply depicts.
As far as fictional accounts of the Holocaust go, this sets a new standard, one that every filmmaker working on the subject should strive to achieve. Every aspect of its production is a masterclass, brimming with understanding, and even its approach to the Sonderkommando, a hotly-debated topic among historians, is nuanced and invested. It never feels contrived or performative or dramatised, never once seems phony or manufactured. It is art, at its most visceral and human, and it needs to be seen.