Son of Saul (2015)

László Nemes | 1hr 47min

In creating a cinematic interpretation of the Holocaust, the temptation to play into its widespread, visceral horror is right there, and certainly many films have taken that approach before. But what if a film were to take a far more subjective, personal aesthetic than any others before, and reject any notion of confronting its chilling, traumatic imagery head-on? What if we weren’t just limited to a single perspective for the entire run time, but rather confined to a wilfully incomplete picture of one small corner of history? László Nemes fully recognises the challenge he is posing himself in taking this approach throughout Son of Saul, and yet it is exactly this dogmatic dedication to a single point-of-view through unending close-ups which offers such tragic nuance to his story, keeping us firmly in the mind of one Jewish-Hungarian concentration camp prisoner.

A brilliantly effective setup for Nemes’ insistence on close-ups in this first shot, as Saul walks straight up into the focus of the camera.

Saul Ausländer’s role in the Sonderkommando unit of Auschwitz sees him put to work in salvaging valuables from the dead bodies of those who perished in gas chambers, and although the length of time he has spent fulfilling this job remains unclear, it has at least been long enough for him to grow numb to his surroundings. The opening shot of a blurry natural environment does little to clue us in on the setting, though when Saul approaches the camera from the background and finally arrives in close-up in razor-sharp focus, we latch right onto him as our primary vessel through which we can understand this world.

From this point on, Nemes’ long tracking shots rarely deviate from keeping Saul’s face and head as our centre of attention as he traverses the camp’s chambers, courtyards, and forests, always keeping this world of gut-wrenching horror and devastation just barely out of sight, whether through the camera’s shallow focus or crowded obstructions within the frame. Though it carries a similar subjective lens as a first-person perspective film like Enter the Void, the emphasis on Saul’s face accomplishes almost the exact opposite in directing our attention inwards on the eye of the hurricane that is his fragile psychological state.

Whenever the camera lets it focus extend into the background, the frame will always be restricted in some way, whether it is through the blocking of bodies or the claustrophobic mise-en-scène.

The thin barrier which Saul builds between reality and perception may be enough to block out the naked corpses and brutal murders that surround him, but the haunting whispers, guttural screams, retching, crying, and clanging of machinery continue to fill the air in a grotesquely detailed sound design, threatening to shatter that bubble of ignorance. Nemes’ decision to paint only a partial picture of this space is even more terrifying than a full-bodied rendering, as through this aural ambience he instead feeds our senses just enough information for us to fill in the gaps with our own notions of unlimited, unknown horror.

As for the pieces of this environment that we are allowed to lay eyes upon, we find nothing less than some of the most powerfully composed close-up shots of the decade, often with faces gathered together in this tight aspect ratio and lit with soft, dim natural light. With such an emphasis on facial expressions, there is much that rests on the subtleties of Géza Röhrig’s largely internal performance, which often conceals incredible anguish, terror, and frustration beneath a veneer of superficial control. On his back is an X designating him as a Sonderkommando worker, though it also marks him as target within his own narrative, unable to escape these cramped, enclosed quarters or his pending doom.

We often hang right behind Saul, the red X on his back standing out in this otherwise dreary brown environment.
The lighting and blocking of these faces is masterful.

Nevertheless, there is a fighting spirit inside him that he hangs onto in desperation, and which motivates his actions along two minimalistic plot threads running parallel to each other over the day and a half that this narrative unfolds over. Within such a contained span of time, Nemes maintains a rigid focus on the urgency of Saul’s immediate goals from scene-to-scene, particularly as they pertain to his hope of reclaiming some shred of dignity in the face of complete subservience to the SS-guards.

Along one strand we follow his cooperation with a group of rebellious prisoners planning an uprising, and the part he plays in smuggling resources between units as an act of defiance. While this covert, subversive effort feeds his desire for justice, his attempts at nourishing his suffering faith drives a more personal storyline regarding the burial of a young boy. He clings to the child’s body as if it were his last chance at salvation, and although he claims it is his own son, we learn from other men that this is not the case. It is in this self-deception that he scrounges for remnants of his Jewish culture and religion that have been decimated by the Nazi regime, and through which he strives to deliver a proper send-off with all the proper religious rites. In trying to attach his own identity to that of this boy’s he is almost pre-empting his own demise, and attempting to fulfil one final wish to put his own life and legacy to rest in accordance with his own religious faith.

Once again, the horrors of the camp are peeking through the obstructions of bodies and set dressing. We never get a good enough look to see what’s going on, but the terror is evident.

The place where Son of Saul ends up strikes a resounding note of tragic loss, and yet in suddenly breaking from its form with a sudden shift of perspective there is a lingering note of hope, as if a small piece of Saul’s spirit has continued to live on. Of course, the fact that this step into a world beyond his immediate point-of-view hits with such force is all down to Nemes’ rigid, consistent application of his own principled style up to this point, as he effectively narrows the scope of his story to a single, harrowing experience of an otherwise monumental blight on human history, and in doing so delivers one of the most traumatic depictions of war committed to film.

The first time we see Saul smile, a piece of his soul going out into the world with this child.

Son of Saul is available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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