Son of Saul, László Nemes’ brutal and brilliant Cannes-prizewinning masterpiece, is a film that brings us back to the core problem of putting history on film. When presenting certain events as the background to a fictional story, where does the line lie between honesty and manipulation? Nemes’ film is a fiction, but it is based not only in history, but in one of the darkest examples of inhumanity ever perpetrated. The horrors of the Holocaust have greater import by still being relatively recent. It’s provided rich opportunities for storytelling, but respect must come first from whoever’s giving the orders behind the camera. So, when you consider that filmmakers as diverse as Steven Spielberg and Uwe Boll have made Holocaust films, you can probably guess which one will make the better, more respectful film. Son of Saul is Nemes’ feature debut, but his experience as an assistant to, and protégé of, Béla Tarr should at least reassure us that he can strike the correct tone. It eschews the commercial austerity of Spielberg or Polanski’s efforts, and ends up somewhere closer to the mesmeric horror of German’s Hard To Be A God.
The tone that Son of Saul manages to strike is at once striking and honest. In telling the trials and exploits of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), Nemes offers a human face on an inhuman period of history. More precisely, it clings to that face, and the humanity behind it. Saul is a prisoner in Auschwitz, forced to be a Sonderkommando, a manual assistant in the gas chambers. Though surrounded by nothing less than crimes against humanity, Nemes keeps Saul front and centre throughout the film. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the opening scene, which sees Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos helping prisoners gather up their clothes and belongings before they enter the chamber. DoP Mátyás Erdély’s camera sticks rigidly with Saul, so we only ever see the fear and nakedness of the other prisoners in the hazy background, captured in the grit of 35mm film. But that is enough. The atmosphere in Son of Saul is ripe with an all-pervading fear. There is little in the way of colour, save for orange glow of the body-burning pyres. There is little respite, save for the ever-present possibility of sudden death. Son of Saul is trenchantly shellshocking, yet through it all is Röhrig’s Saul, a face frozen in the tender sternness of a need to survive. A poet by trade with limited acting experience, Röhrig wonderfully and necessarily underplays the role, letting the slightest shift in his eyes and the corners of his mouth reflect the revulsion Saul could never say aloud.
Having opened with Saul assisting in the dispatching of a group in the gas chambers, where can a film go after that? Just as the camera focuses on Saul as a humane eye in the middle of a murderous hurricane, so Saul in turn finds a glimpse of humanity to which he clings. A young boy is amongst the dead in the chamber, and is brought out gasping his last. He dies, but in the few breaths Saul sees him take, he claims the boy as his son and vows to himself to give him a proper burial. For the rest of the film, Röhrig undertakes a mission to keep this one hopeful act alive amidst the horrors that Nemes and his crew recreate so vividly. They work wonders on a €1.5 million budget, bringing Auschwitz back from the dead in a triumph of production design and detail, courtesy of László Rajk. It has to be no less than rigorous; Saul is flung back and forth across the camp in his duties for the guards and his ‘son’, the latter requiring him to seek out a rabbi to read the Kaddish over the burial. Focusing on Saul’s determination allows Son of Saul to inject a sliver of hope into a hopeless situation. The crematoria are death factories, yet Saul needs to do right by this boy out of a need for hope and to preserve what remains of his soul. His feelings have been necessarily repressed, but even in the depths of Auschwitz, they survive.
It is the need for emotional resuscitation and rescue that sees Saul get roped into a plot by other Sonderkommandos to smuggle pictures of the atrocities of the camp to the outside, which slowly morphs into a plan for all-out rebellion. The handheld camerawork adds to the tension when Saul and others go on missions of extraction and reconnaissance, but this isn’t Greengrass-aping shaky-cam action. Whether dodging his captors, his fellow plotters or gunfire, the focus remains impressively on Saul throughout, which means that relatively quieter scenes become all the more tense. Saul has to work repeatedly to ensure the boy’s body is not autopsied, which at one point leads to him being discovered by a group of white-coated Nazi doctors. The accompanying soldiers force him to parade around in a mocking Jewish dance, and the camera dances behind Saul all the way. Son of Saul constantly throws the audience into the middle of the insanity. Nemes and Clara Royer’s script pits Saul against the worst of injustices, only for the camera and Röhrig to bring out his best. Nemes commits to his storytelling method, but it’s informed by a need for respect and hope; the central story may be a fiction, but it’s in the midst of a history we can ill afford to forget or misrepresent. It’s a sobering watch, but an unforgettable one.