Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust film “Son of Saul” is an overwhelming (in the best way possible), immersive and all-around unforgettable experience.
The picture doesn’t give you a chance to settle in and get ready. Right from the start, Nemes drops us right into the middle of the action, practically mid-sentence, and keeps on moving. The characters all know one another and have been occupying this cinematic space for quite some time. Meanwhile, the audience is disoriented; we don’t know where we are, or even when we are. We’re outsiders dropped into this chaotic, terrifying environment.
Eventually we’re able to decipher a visible narrative pattern. The film revolves around Auschwitz prisoner Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners who were forced to help with the disposal of gas chamber victims.
With the exception of a sequence near the end, the film is told from the point of view of Auslander, in only close-ups — we experience things only when he does. This visual scheme creates a sensation of intense claustrophobia in the viewer; we spend most of the movie trapped in cramped, windowless, dimly lit spaces of death. The experience is suffocating and uncomfortable at times. We watch as Auslander leads a group of nude, frightened, confused prisoners into a death chamber. We watch as he is forced to clean up the place afterward, scrubbing blood off the floor and stacking corpses. It’s during one of these “routine” tasks that Auslander discovers the corpse of his son (or at least who he believes to be his son), and he spends the rest of the movie trying to give him a proper burial.
The stripped-down nature of the narrative is refreshing. At this point, Holocaust films have become their own subgenre. By focusing on a member of the Sonderkommando, “Son of Saul” finds its own unique entry point into the subgenre. The Sonderkommando occupy a peculiar middle ground between prisoner and oppressor; they’re forced to lead their own people to death, but at the same time, their own execution is right around the corner.
The weight of Auslander’s seemingly simple quest is immense: He’s trying to retain some semblance of his humanity in a place that’s devoid of it. You may find yourself feeling frustrated by Auslander’s actions, but the film ultimately asks you to empathize with him.
We see a lot of graphic, unspeakable images that are presented in a blunt, yet non-exploitive, non-showing way. There’s no instrumental score to heighten the drama and emotion on-screen. Nemes knows to let these raw images speak for themselves. Because of the film’s highly subjective perspective it doesn’t linger too long on individual moments of suffering — it’s always on the move.
From a purely technical standpoint, “Son of Saul” is a meticulously crafted piece of brilliance. The film is composed of lengthy, activity-filled, single-take sequences that wash over and pull you along. Any piece of art that can inspire such an intense physical reaction is incredibly effective and one that shouldn’t be forgotten.
We go to movies to feel uncomfortable, to be pushed out of our comfort zones and see things that we may not want to see. “Son of Saul” is one of those movies.