Viewing Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ devastating Oscar-nominated debut film “Son of Saul” is like revisiting a recurring nightmare. From “Schindler’s List” to “The Pianist” to “Inglorious Basterds,” the Third Reich’s meticulous planning of mass extinction in Europe has inspired countless filmmakers to create genocide narratives. Some have gained broad audiences and admiring praise. But few inspire mindfulness and revulsion so powerfully. It creates tragic catastrophe with stark understatement and objectivity.
Nemes’ film is centered on the death-camp Sonderkommandos, where Jewish prisoners forced to surrender their innocence and work the camps under the threat of their own deaths.
The film focuses exclusively on one workforce member, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working in Auschwitz. With intricate, unbroken shots, the camera gazes exclusively at him, following behind his shoulders as he races to complete his tasks, or focusing on his expressive, nearly silent face. Nemes carries us through hell as Saul shepherds new arrivals into cyanide chambers disguised as delousing showers, then scrubs the floors clean for the next group.
Rohrig, also in his feature film debut, is equally realistic. He avoids emoting, simply moving forward at a fast clip in the hope of lasting another day. Then he sees a young, unconscious boy being suffocated by a camp doctor for somehow surviving his group’s poisoning. Saul is ordered to remove “it” for autopsy and burning. But this is an order he can’t follow. He regards the child as if he was his own boy, and secretly tries to locate a rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
This is a time when a number of fellow prisoners hope to gather weapons and construct an uprising, while others try to find ways to protect their own lives. Yet amid this flood of humanity Saul feels his most meaningful last act would be to care for a dead boy.
“Son of Saul” is a difficult film, not only in its moral issues, creative formalism and physical atrocities, but in its scrupulous authenticity. The dialogue is a Babel of confusion, as the camp’s international prisoners speak hushed Hungarian, Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew as the commandants bark bullying German. Characters of strength and weakness appear without introduction and the time line moves in jerks and starts. Yet this is artlessness in the service of realism. The prisoners, and we viewers, sense that the war is nearing an end and the Final Solution is racing ahead at top speed to finish. They will soon be killed; there is not a moment left for discussion.
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