What are the limits of representation? That’s a moral question that hovers over any depiction of the Final Solution, and it’s not considered lightly by László Nemes’s Son of Saul, which turns unimaginable horrors into tangible ones. By venturing inside the death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nemes risks greeting obscenity with obscenity, as if the Holocaust were the latest frontier in you-are-there experiential cinema. Whether Nemes crosses the line is a matter of personal taste, but there’s no question that he’s aware of that line, because nearly every second in Son of Saul feels like an act of aesthetic calculation. What we see and don’t see, what we hear and don’t hear — all rigorously determined to evoke a historical evil as fully as possible without marinating in it.
Though Nemes and his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, are precise in controlling what the camera glimpses, their main strategy is to limit visual perspective severely and leave the soundtrack — and the viewer’s imagination — to do most of the dirty work. In his audacious feature debut, Nemes, a Hungarian who served as assistant director to Béla Tarr on The Man From London, narrows the frame to Academy ratio, keeps a shallow depth-of-field, and tracks a single cog in the death-camp machine. There’s a creeping sense, throughout the film, that any attempt to open the lens a little wider or follow a more redemptive arc would be an unseemly act of exploitation.
Son of Saul opens with its most harrowing sequence, entering an Auschwitz crematorium where Saul (Géza Röhrig) serves as part of the Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners forced to clean up the gas chambers after executions. We learn nothing about how Saul came to be a Sonderkommando, but we can tell, based on the rote fluidity of his actions, that he’s familiar with the Nazi boilerplate promising work to the soon-to-be-deceased, that he’s heard the screams and gasps from behind the metal door, and that he’s collected the personal effects hanging outside the showers. Though Saul and the Sonderkommando live apart from the other prisoners, their deaths are no less certain, only delayed. Röhrig’s face, in these moments, is a mask of grim resignation.
Nemes does everything he can to connect the audience to Saul’s numbness, shielding us as much as possible from the cacophony of human misery that rings in his ears. The chill seeps in regardless, as it should, and Nemes doesn’t try to counter it with more than a tiny, stubborn flicker of hope. After a young boy survives the gas chamber, only to be snuffed out swiftly by a Nazi “doctor,” Saul makes it his mission to save the body from cremation, find a rabbi, and give the child a proper burial. There’s some ambiguity over whether the boy is Saul’s illegitimate son, but the smallness of this gesture serves as a powerful rebuke to the martyrs and saints that populate Holocaust narratives like Schindler’s List or Life Is Beautiful. Here, hope is fleeting — and easily extinguished.
Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens December 18, Film Forum
Directed by László Nemes. Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer. Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, and Sándor Zsótér.