In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival trying to save from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.
For all its ghastly aspects, the sheer scale of the Holocaust is where its true horror lies. Son of Saul brings that horror home in perhaps the most counter-intuitive way imaginable: by focusing so closely on one man that everything going on around him is a blur. Thirty-eight year-old Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut film is shot in shallow focus, with his lead constantly front and centre while everything around him is lost in a fuzzy murk. It’s a brilliant literalisation of his central character’s mindset; trapped in a hell and forced to serve his tormentors as a cog in a machine whose output is death, the only way for him to make it through each day is to avoid facing the horrendous reality head-on.
The year is 1944, the place is Auschwitz, and Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the sonderkommando, Jewish inmates who the camp guards use to perform menial tasks. His position is a mixed blessing: the sonderkommando get to live while thousands die, but their own deaths are assured as part of the Holocaust they’ve helped perpetuate. At first Saul’s job is to help calm the new arrivals and herd them into the gas chambers; he and his fellows then collect their clothes (checking them for valuables) and help drag the corpses away. It’s while doing this that he discovers a young boy who has somehow survived the gas. As a medical curio to the Nazi doctors, he doesn’t survive for long. But Saul becomes fixated on the idea that this boy must have a proper burial, and the rest of the film follows him as he roams the camp in a near-suicidal fashion trying to find a Rabbi to perform the last rites.
This intensely powerful film manages to provide a new way of seeing a subject that remains bigger than any one film can deal with. But as the focus tightens on Saul’s quest, some of its early impact fades; he’s just one man, a drop in an ocean of blood, and by necessity the more we focus on him the less of the big picture we take in. There’s a plot about an insurrection (based on actual events) which also muddies things slightly, though no doubt that’s the point; as the chaos swells around him, Saul never loses his focus.
Exactly what drives Saul on his search remains a mystery. At one stage he refers to the boy as his son; another prisoner snaps “you have no son”. Is he trying to make up for a son he couldn’t help? Or is he simply trying to reclaim some humanity from the inhuman machine he has become entangled in? His search takes him all over the camp and outside it, giving us a wide-ranging look at the massive scale of the camp’s operations; mountains of ash are disposed of by shovelling them into a river, mountains of coal are shovelled into furnaces to heat the ovens, mountains of personal possessions are sorted by female inmates, and the piles of corpses dwarf them all.
The accrual of small details adds immeasurably to this film’s nightmarish tone, each banality (fighting over a shovel, trying to fix a busted lock) piling up atop each other as Saul passes by like a sleepwalker trapped in a nightmare – which, of course, he is. The guards are either mocking or murderous, a presence to be avoided; much of the films ghastly atmosphere comes from the feeling that this is a machine running itself. It’s a towering performance from Röhrig, playing a character who has to be totally locked down emotionally to survive. He’s a crumbling façade, a blank face with downturned eyes that burn bright on the brief occasions he’s acting for himself, knowing however things turn out that death will be with him forever.