It has become nearly impossible to separate the Holocaust from its cinematic legacy. We’ve seen Oscar-winning feature films and documentaries of all tones, all subject matters and from numerous countries on the topic. And while this subject is far from a tired one, its sheer prevalence in a way calls for some new interpretation of the horrors of the early 1940s. “Son of Saul,” directed by Hungarian first-timer László Nemes, is yet another film to add to the subject matter’s collection of works, but it satisfyingly goes beyond the conventional messages and techniques of the works that came before.
The film follows the titular Saul Ausländer, played impeccably by first-time actor Géza Röhrig, through a day and a half at Auschwitz. There, Saul is a prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, a labor force comprised of Jewish prisoners who were coerced into assisting the Nazis in disposing the bodies of gas chamber victims at the threat of their own death. Saul comes across the body of a boy whom he claims as a son, and attempts to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial, while also joining a cadre of fellow workers who are attempting to escape. These two stories interweave as Nazi officers decide to trim Ausländer’s specific group of workers. That last plot point, (like a boa constrictor tightening on its prey,) turns the film into more of a taut thriller.
“Son of Saul” differs so strongly from other Holocaust movies because its subjects are not larger than life. Whereas “Schindler’s List” features a man who saved about 1,000 Jews, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” follows a girl whose story has become legend, “Son of Saul” is a fictitious story about a group of people who have been largely forgotten. When Saul enters the screen, we know nothing of him, his past and his fate. The story renders Saul as a stand-in for all the victims whose stories we have forgotten.
And yet, “Son of Saul” retains a narrow scope in its examination of the human experience in horrifying circumstances. Saul, who wears a deadened expression throughout much of the film, is seen at his most lucid when on the quest for the rabbi. Otherwise, Saul resembles little more than an abused worker who, because of the conditions, has been dehumanized beyond emotional recognition. Saul’s decisions in the company of fellow workers are peculiar, but they serve to emphasize that rationality is a luxury in such harrowing experiences.
But while Saul is the most featured character, the true stars of the film are its below-the-line craftsmen. Mátyás Erdély’s shaky, kinetic cinematography instills a true sense of chaos, while the quick pace of the script itself underscores the quickly approaching doom of the characters. Matthieu Taponier’s editing features several long, uninterrupted takes, many of which depict relatively mundane events, like Saul standing in a hallway as several new prisoners pass him on their way to the gas chamber. This deliberative pacing both adds to the mounting dread of knowing what awaits these prisoners, as well as the bit of relief of knowing Saul gets to live for a few seconds more than we would have seen if the clip had been edited. Further, the camera follows Saul around, like a third-person video game following its main character, while the typical horrors of the Holocaust are confined to the corners or, more often, off-screen. The biggest accomplishment is the film’s superb soundscape, designed by Tamás Zányi, which transforms off-camera conversations into menacing words looming over Saul’s, and our, head. The sounds of screaming, crying, burning and hard labor combine to create an opus of pure sonic horror.
“Son of Saul” was Nemes’s attempt to cure the ills of the Holocaust film. He avoids spectacle, heroes and happy endings, the typical fixtures that make the subject matter artificially digestible. And most of all, rather than attempting to be a sprawling epic, “Son of Saul” is impossibly small, opting to focus on its main character rather than the horrors that surround him.