To see the world through the eyes of another is surely the core of great storytelling; the sharing of experience is what binds us together as human beings, even when that experience is suffering. Though it’s his first film, László Nemes showcases an unshaken belief that this experience must not simply be distantly related, but lived up close and personal in horrific detail.
Hungarian-born Saul (Géza Röhrig) is rounded onto a train to Auschwitz, where he faces the sickening prospect of working as a member of the Sonderkommando, a team of young Jewish men forced to partake in the mechanisms of the Nazi genocide. When Saul witnesses a young boy’s death, he claims him as his own and seeks to have him properly buried, whatever the cost.
Nemes’ choice to shoot the whole film in close-up – with the camera rarely more than a metre from Röhrig’s nose – spares us little of the gruesome realities of Auschwitz. As a measure of history, Son Of Saul is never short on shock: in long, unbroken takes that see naked Jews executed point blank, dumped into pits, dragged from the gas chambers and subjected to all manner of mockery and degradation, Nemes exposes the horrors of the Holocaust in a more deeply affecting way than most films on the subject.
His refusal to moralise and paint his Jewish characters as flawless lends gravity and complexity to his approach. Saul is no rebel hero, nor a complete naïf, but instead a man so single-minded in his task – the only thing within his control – that he is often enraging to the viewer. To paraphrase Abraham (Levente Molnár), he betrays the living for the dead.
But what else is he to do? He is a character faced with the abject, and certainly broken by it. A particularly distressing sequence in which he is puppeted by an SS guard in a grotesque mockery of Jewish dance lays bare his character’s truth – buffeted by fate, he clings desperately to a single act of potential redemption.
There are plots to rebel against the SS, to sneak photos of the slaughter out to the global press, and to blow up the crematoriums – their manoeuvrings involve Saul when it suits his purposes and keep the plot flowing smoothly, as does the choice to shoot in extended takes. However, the film’s greatest asset is its immaculate, haunting sound design. We never enter the gas chambers, but hearing what Saul hears from the other side of the door is enough.
Though it often frustrates with its dogged narrative, Son Of Saul is daring filmmaking and potent historical record. May we never witness its like again.
Son Of Saul opens in cinemas on Thursday February 25.