“The Holocaust was not a story of survival. The rule was death.
This is a story of the dead.”
After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, you’d expect this new depiction of the Holocaust to be a powerful, unique and affecting viewing experience. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how traumatising and harrowing this would be and how long its effect would linger.
Directed by 38-year old debutant László Nemes, Son of Saul is a shattering and guttural endurance test for which audiences should be warned. For 95% of the film, the audience is locked tightly around the perspective of a Sonderkommando named Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a gaunt and lifeless Hungarian Jewish prisoner, who marginally extends his life by working in the crematoria of a Nazi concentration camp.
I cannot say this any clearer: Son of Saul is an unrelenting horror film. It’s hyper-realistic and hyper-focused presentation does not offer a larger theme or message to reflect upon and find hope within. This is desperate, intimate and immediate cinema.
The bare bones narrative presents a stark and assumingly accurate depiction of life on the inside of a concentration camp. When we first meet Saul, he’s a ghost. His inmates are planning a rebellion of sorts, trying as they might to record and document the atrocities that they are forced to take part in.
His arid and spiritless demeanour is suddenly shaken when he witnesses the killing of a small teenager, who he feels must be honoured with a proper Jewish burial. With the threat of torture or extermination lingering over his every move, Saul sets out to perform one final task before he departs this world.
The film’s marquee feature is its powerfully effective 4:3 cinematography by Mátyás Erdély. Much of his framing encases Saul in a tight close up, with only centimetres of screen available to hint at the surrounding horrors. This masterful camera technique, forces the viewer to be constantly scanning the edges of the frame. While the shallow depth of field does help to distort and blur some of the imagery, the brutality and atrocity of this life cannot be completely masked or hidden.
While the film lacks gore, it is still an immensely graphic picture. Nemes is not visually exploitative, but he also pulls no punches. Earlier into the feature, Nemes shows a group of unsuspecting Jews being lured into a gas chamber while Saul stands apathetically next to the sealed door. You simply cannot unhear the sounds that come from inside. This is far more impacting than any gore-ridden makeup effect.
There is no comfort in this film, nor is there for any filmmaker trying to present such tragic events as the Holocaust, in new ways, to audiences. The subject matter is so incredibly difficult, personal and sensitive that I must praise Nemes for staying faithful to his authentic artistic vision. He refrains from reducing the film to any kind of sentimentalising or statement making. He doesn’t tell us, he simply allows Röhrig to show us. The tension-filled claustrophobic camera work is inescapable.
Make no mistake, this is not just another Holocaust film. It’s one that everyone should see and promise themselves to never forget.