László Nemes’ debut feature – co-written with French screenwriter Clara Royer – won the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar earlier this year, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes a year ago, and the general release in UK cinemas has been anticipated by many who missed its 2015 festival run. The story follows a day of the life of Saul Ausländer (the superb Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian-Jewish man and a prisoner at Auschwitz in 1944, when the Nazi concentration camp’s capacity for ‘processing’ – i.e. exterminating – was at its fullest. In fact, somewhat daringly, Nemes opens Son Of Saul with a harrowing sequence that dramatises this mass killing, something that other Holocaust dramas have occasionally shied away from doing (for – I imagine – a number of different reasons). As you’d expect the images and sounds seen and heard during this first ten or fifteen minutes are powerful, and disturbing, and even though the sequence is as intense as anything I’ve seen since starting this blog, its to Nemes’ credit that he doesn’t soften the blow or even add anything subsequently that could be described as ‘respite’. His film – particularly the opening – is every bit as tough to sit through as it should be, though I hasten to add it’s much more than a cinematic test of endurance.
Whenever a film about the Holocaust arrives on screen the old discussion about whether the atrocity should actually be turned into a work that’s aesthetically-pleasing – or whether it should be used as a subject for entertainment – rears its head. As this article summates, ‘the desire to show, to tell, to educate, comes up against decency, taste and revulsion’. It’s a debate that has taken place many times before, and between people with far more interesting opinions on the matter than me, but for what it’s worth here’s my take on it. More than 70 years after the event, and despite the increasing number of films that have dealt with the Holocaust, it’s still strange to see the subject addressed as directly as it is here, within a medium that – primarily – is still supposed to entertain. And Son Of Saul is entertainment, in the sense that you can admire the craftsmanship that has gone into making it, whether that be the cinematography, the production design, the sound design, the editing, the acting, or some other aspect. Of course it’s natural for us, as viewers, to question our own feelings given the subject matter, and whether our reaction to it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. How can we watch a make-believe version of one of the worst human acts in history and walk away from the experience feeling somewhat nourished, having had an experience that could be described as ‘good’ or ‘great’? How can we be impressed by artistic merit and repulsed by the sights we are presented with (or, more accurately, the related real-life events that such on-screen sights make us think about) at the same time? For me, as long as a film addresses the Holocaust sensitively – as this one does – then I can only see a benefit, in the sense that it becomes a powerful educational tool as well as a piece of entertainment to be consumed. It’s important that filmmakers like Nemes continue to look at, and dramatise, the very worst aspects of human behaviour.
Anyway. Saul, who has a large, red ‘X’ painted on the back of his jacket, is a Sonderkommando, a prisoner who is forced to work within the camp, receiving a stay of execution for a few months and a few minor benefits as a result. His job is not to kill or to question, but to help clean the gas chambers after people have been murdered, dragging bodies out for disposal and scrubbing the floor (he also has other odd jobs, and there’s a hint that he worked as a locksmith before his internment). In that first scene a train arrives carrying hundreds of new arrivals; they are unceremoniously ushered into a changing room and ordered to strip, and one of Saul’s tasks is to hurry them up. We hear Nazi soldiers tell the people that they’re about to take a shower, and that afterwards they will be rewarded with hot soup and jobs. ‘Remember your hook number,’ orders one voice, ‘and come and see me afterwards’. Of course we know it’s a complicity-inducing ruse, and soon enough we hear the desperate screams of people as they are gassed, with many hammering on the walls and door of the chamber (this is a film that shocks and surprises and tells its story through sound as much as anything visual). Afterwards bodies – referred to as ‘pieces’ – are stacked up and dragged away, but the plot of the film is set in motion when Saul sees a young boy who nearly survives the gassing. Saul claims that the boy is his son, and subsequently his quest to undertake a proper, ceremonial burial with a rabbi present informs the narrative; later conversations reveal that Saul probably isn’t related to this boy, but the act seems to give the prisoner the kind of renewed purpose that he can’t seem to find in a planned uprising, which develops simultaneously.
Throughout the day Ausländer (which may not be Saul’s real surname, given that it translates as ‘alien’ in German) walks around hurriedly, looking over his shoulder and acting tentatively around the camp’s numerous Nazi soldiers. It’s easy to understand why when we see him ritually humiliated by several of them, or given a dressing down. When he brushes past one soldier, early in the film, he instantly stands still, upright, and apologises; a Nazi taking exception to such physical contact might easily result in Saul’s death, even if the initial brush is accidental. So, as Saul makes his way around the camp and its environs he’s understandably jittery, and there’s a freneticism to the work he undertakes. Whether he’s searching the clothes of the dead for valuables or digging holes, it’s clear that signs of slowness, or weakness, will result in an earlier death. One of the abiding images I have from the film is Saul frantically shovelling the ashes of victims into a nearby river, more concerned about surreptitiously interacting with a rabbi in view of Nazi officers than the awfulness of what he is actually doing. To the untrained eye it looks as though he’s operating at double speed.
Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses a 40mm lens throughout, and his camera is always close to Röhrig, with a shallow depth-of-field often employed; the titular character remains in focus, but anything more than a foot or so away from him is usually blurry, meaning that the viewer is constantly striving to make out details or figures in the background. As well as obfuscating events, the proximity of camera to actor works for another reason: most of the conversations between Saul and other prisoners are hushed, as a necessity, so to be tight in as they whisper and conspire makes perfect sense. It also increases the intensity of the film, though I’m not sure that any serious drama dealing with such subject matter requires such an increase. Nemes chose to present the film in the Academy ratio, too, a choice that increases the paucity of visual information and context, given that Saul’s face or upper body takes up so much of the screen space. All told it’s a remarkable piece of work, especially for a debut feature, and it features one of the best – if not the best – performances you’ll see all year. It’s a brave film, too, in the sense that few directors have actually taken on the gas chamber process as directly and as unflinchingly as Nemes has here, from the gassing itself to the sudden realisation that the fog which briefly descends on an open air yard isn’t what you initially think it is. Admittedly my knowledge of day-to-day life within Auschwitz comes largely from film and television, but this particular film seems to get to the root of the chores, the fear and – most importantly – the grimness of it all more succesfully than anything else I’ve seen. Essential viewing.
Directed by: László Nemes.
Written by: László Nemes, Clara Noyer.
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn.
Cinematography: Mátyás Erdély.
Editing: Matthieu Taponier.
Music: László Melis.
Running Time: 107 minutes.