There have been plenty of films over the years that have attempted to tackle the subject of the Holocaust, but nothing quite like László Nemes's gripping "Son of Saul." Winner of the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival -- where even securing a place in competition is a rare achievement for a first-time filmmaker like Nemes -- "Son of Saul" is also Hungary's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and the current odds-on favorite to win.
"Son of Saul" is the story of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he's part of the Sonderkommando -- a group of prisoners kept alive in order to assist the SS with the maintenance and operation of their death camps. Where many Holocaust dramas are epic in scope, this film is frantic and claustrophobic.
Filming in the square "academy ratio," cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoots entirely in medium close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots with shallow depth-of-field, keeping the focus almost entirely on where Saul's attention lies at that moment. The camera's narrowed focus keeps the unspeakable horrors that Saul witnesses on the periphery of our vision; blurry abstractions that remain just on the edges of the frame, mimicking the blinkered existence of our protagonist.
During the latest procession of victims being shuttled through the extermination process, a young boy somehow manages to survive the gas chamber. Immediately, a Nazi "doctor" arrives to quickly and dispassionately finish the job, but not before the boy has succeeded in breaking through Saul's barriers. Convinced that the child was his son, Saul suddenly has a renewed purpose, and the film follows his obsessive, single-minded quest to secure a proper Jewish burial for his son's body, no matter what the cost. Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer keep things ambiguous about whether or not the boy is actually Saul's son; all that matters is that Saul believes it, as his actions put his own life in jeopardy and puts him at odds with his fellow prisoners, a number of whom are planning an uprising to overtake their captors.
Each scene unfolds in unbroken, elaborately choreographed shots that capture the chaos of the camps. Rather than coming across as showy directorial flourishes, the technique provides us with a solid sense of space, immersing us completely in Saul's existence. With the entire story resting on his shoulders, Röhrig delivers a haunted, unforgettable performance. Without the benefit of much dialogue, his performance relies almost entirely on his physicality to convey emotion. Röhrig's face remains impassive, but his eyes make it clear exactly what effect the camp's horrors -- and his own role in them -- have had on Saul. It's not a performance that asks for our sympathy, but the actor succeeds in drawing us in until we find ourselves invested in Saul's quest toward some miniscule form of redemption.
In order to get by, Saul has had to block everything out but his own survival, and that's reflected in how Nemes and Erdély choose to shoot the film's action. The film's impeccable and shrewdly constructed sound design ensures that, though we're mostly shielded from the more brutal images, we're never numbed to them. The horrors remain indistinct and out of focus, but the terrible noise of the camp breaks through our senses, triggering our imaginations and ensuring that we can't shield ourselves from the atrocities that surround Saul. The sound seems to come from everywhere, constantly threatening to overwhelm us.
"Son of Saul" is intense, brutal, and frequently harrowing, but the filmmaking is electrifying. The immediacy transforms a staggeringly incomprehensible subject into a vivid, uniquely personal experience. Somber but never ponderous, Nemes' film is grasping at something larger than an "experiential" Holocaust movie as he examines the methods a human being must resort to in an effort to survive unspeakable evil, and whether it's ever possible to face such incomprehensible tragedy with one's humanity intact.