Just when you think you’ve seen every possible aspect of the World War II Holocaust experience, along comes a film like Son of Saul to remind us that there are an infinite number of stories to be told under this umbrella—and daring ways to tell them. In a dazzling debut, director László Nemes (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer) immerses us in one man’s desperate search for meaning and humanity in a hellish environment. Told in an almost unbroken series of hand-held closeups, we follow Saul, one of the Jewish Sonderkommandos whose lives are temporarily spared in return for preparing their fellow Jews for extermination at Auschwitz and cleaning up after their demise in the gas chambers.
When a boy survives the initial gas attack, Saul becomes obsessed with seeing that he is given a proper burial by a rabbi, as if this act will grant him some form of short-term salvation. That is the essence of Son of Saul, a gripping film in which all the horrors of a concentration camp are depicted as a blur in the background or kept off-screen altogether. We are never unaware of what is going on, but our focus is on Saul in the foreground, as he navigates the tricky line between his Jewish overseers and the Nazi guards who determine their fate. Like filmmaker Nemes, this represents a screen debut for actor Géza Röhrig, whose understated performance is simply extraordinary.
Son of Saul captures the surreal atmosphere of Auschwitz in 1944, where the unthinkable is taking place every day and the drone-like Sonderkommandos are expected to carry out their horrific tasks without comment or hesitation. Nemes sees to it that we never question the authenticity of the story or the fate awaiting our hero if he makes one wrong move.
To pull off such a bravura act of filmmaking is a formidable achievement. No wonder Son of Saul won the Grand Jury Prize and other honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and why it is a major contender for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It would certainly get my vote.