Director: László Nemes
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
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Son of Saul, a film that depicts the day-to-day survival of a man in Auschwitz-Birkenau, is not an easy movie to watch. It’s an even harder movie to hear.
Director László Nemes – astonishingly, making his feature film debut – has crafted a shocking piece of cinema, which brings concentration camps to life in a powerful new way. They have appeared on screen before many times, from the black and white of Schindler’s List to, most recently, vampire horror TV series The Strain, but never with such alarming immediacy.
The film follows Saul, a Hungarian who holds the post of Sonderkommando, which involves the handling of everyday exterminations. But when he recognises a boy in the gas chamber, Saul decides to give him a proper burial – and so he tries to find a Rabbi to recite the correct prayers.
Whether or not this boy is the son of Saul is never clear, but that’s irrelevant: the quest consumes him, a futile, yet all-encompassing attempt to retain some semblance of humanity and dignity in a place where numbered people have neither. (It’s telling that one of the first things prisoners ask when they meet each other is what country they’re from.)
Géza Röhrig is fantastic in the lead, his fixed, hardened frown conveying a surprising amount of emotion, as he annoys fellow prisoners with his inability to join in their escape plan. His Saul is stoic, but movingly so; a last remnant of tradition rattling around inside a relentless, noisy machine of war.
Nemes’ camera follows him through his tasks, from piling up bodies to shovelling ashes, almost always one step behind – a long-take approach that recalls the immersive power of Children of Men. The over-the-shoulder perspective, though, perhaps most resembles a video game, positioning Saul in a never-ending universe of increasingly horrible obstacles; no matter what task he completes, there is always a harder level to face.
If the onslaught of cruelty initially inspires dismay, though, what is most terrifying is how quickly you get used to it. Nemes’ deliberately restricted POV leaves the nastiest things to occur off-screen; we don’t see the atrocities of the Holocaust, but we listen to them all. Screams, footsteps, fire, guns. That gruelling reality is Son of Sauls’ grim achievement: capturing the sound of genocide. As Saul soldiers on, his numb resilience almost rubs off on us, rendering murder as a constant, background thrum. Every few minutes, the deafening horror of it all breaks though.