Director and co-writer László Nemes’s brilliant debut feature, “Son of Saul” is a wrenchingly visceral, immersive experience, fusing the viewer with Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig, perfect), a Hungarian Jewish Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The film is claustrophobically (and strikingly) shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio, often framed tightly on Röhrig’s strangely beautiful face, his deep-set hazel eyes (here, affectless) and a boxer’s nose, or on his tensed shoulders and back. The view of the mayhem is restricted to Saul’s limited perspective, shown out-of-focus, beyond him, as he performs his unbearable tasks, herding new prisoners from the transports into the camp and the gas chambers, and disposing of the dead bodies.
Says Nemes, “I didn’t want to make a spectacle with the background and was relying on the view’s imagination.” The film’s expert and overwhelming sound design, a constant unbearable mind-numbing roar, conveys the horrific chaos. “I wanted babel. And frequent disorientation, making it hard to know where the sound was coming from.”
Living devoid of all feelings, including fear and hope, Saul is in constant numbed motion, passing through areas of the camp shot leached of color. Hauling the bodies to be burnt, Saul discovers a boy whom he’s convinced is his son. Having neglected the boy in life (the child’s mother wasn’t Saul’s wife), he’s determined to take care of him in death. In his desperation to find a rabbi and bury the boy properly, Saul ferociously grabs onto human decency, and with it, the world of the living. Röhrig says, “With this dangerous act, Saul chooses to save his soul rather than his body.”
The Sonderkommandos, brutally recruited as they entered the camps, were the “heart of the extermination machine,” says Nemes, allowing the Nazis to remove themselves from the killing except for the antiseptic job of “pouring the Zyklon B.”
Röhrig adds that “by demonically making these prisoners ‘partners in crime,’ the Nazis even denied the Sonderkommandos their innocence, transforming them into what Primo Levi called ‘crematorium ravens.’ ”
Condemning them as collaborators, rather than as prisoners forced to make impossible moral choices is, says Nemes, “to shift the responsibility to the victims. With my film, I wanted to show the real experience and to give dignity to the dead. The Holocaust is a story of the dead.”
“Son of Saul” will open on Friday, December 18 at Film Forum. Géza Röhrig will be in person at the 7:30 pm show.
I’ve seen innumerable disturbing films about the Shoah but “Son of Saul” is near-virtual reality, a fearsome trip into the hell of Auschwitz. At my shoot with László and Géza, we discussed other Holocaust films, fiction and non-, many of them admired, and agreed that the puerile “Life is Beautiful,” is offensively not funny. But we didn’t think that it wouldn’t be impossible to make a comedy about Auschwitz, but that it would require a genius like Mel Brooks.