A winner at Cannes and favored contender for the best foreign language film Oscar this year, Laszlo Nemes’s debut feature is both formally audacious and thematically provocative, so much so on both counts that it’s difficult to absorb all the implications while sitting through the movie. Movies about the death camps start from a position of high tension, and making good on that tension is central to the value of the film. Nemes gears up our anxiety by throwing us directly into the horror. His protagonist, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), is a Hungarian Jew assigned to be a Sonderkommando, an inmate who essentially carries out the labor at the Nazi death camps, in this case Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul moves new arrivals into the gas chambers, clears out the bodies afterwards, and separates clothing and other valuables. Perhaps understanding that showing these atrocities would be overwhelming, Nemes chooses to keep his camera close to Saul, so that the horrors mostly occur on the periphery of the frame, but there is still the voices and other sounds—of barked orders, panicked victims, and various mechanical noises, all of which are sufficiently overwhelming in their suggestiveness. After fifteen minutes you want the projectionist to call a time out so you can collect your wits.
But Nemes’s riskiest gambit is inserting an actual through-plot into this chaotic circus of death. While clearing out a gas chamber, the Sonderkommando discover a boy who has barely survived, and Saul thinks it is his own son. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to believe he is deluded, but in any case the boy dies and Saul’s grief turns into purposefulness: He becomes determined to see the boy given a proper Jewish burial, and thus the tension rachets up as he risks his life trying to steal and safeguard the body while searching out a rabbi in the camp to perform the funeral. At the same time, his fellow Sonderkommando, responding to a rumor that they will soon be killed themselves, are plotting a desperate and probably suicidal act of collective revolt.
Nemes’s technical adeptness in arranging all of these elements into a whole that makes narrative sense is impressive, and, in the end, frustrating, as well, since the movie is so visceral as to be empty of compelling characters. Even Saul, despite the fact that he is constantly before us in a state of emotional agitation, never comes through as a fully rounded human. He is all impulses, a vessel for our reactions to what we hear and see on the fly. It’s obvious that Nemes’s purpose is to leap over the sentimental cliches of Holocaust literature, to get directly at the evil the death camps embodied so perfectly, and he succeeds only too well. The only way to appreciate the accomplishment of a movie like Son of Saul is to see it multiple times, but who would want to put themselves through that?
In German and Hungarian with Japanese subtitles.
Son of Saul home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2015 Laokoon Filmgroup