Viewing Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ devastating Oscar-nominated debut film “Son of Saul” is like visiting a recurring nightmare. From “Schindler’s List” to “The Pianist” to “Inglorious Basterds,” the Third Reich’s meticulous planning of mass extinction in Europe has inspired countless filmmakers to create genocide narratives. Some have gained broad audiences and admiring praise. But few inspire mindfulness and revulsion so powerfully. It creates tragic catastrophe with stark understatement and objectivity.
Nemes’ film is centered on the death-camp Sonderkommandos: Jewish prisoners forced to surrender their innocence and work the camps under the threat of their own deaths. Some helped dispose of gas chamber victims in hope of controlling their destinies by holding off their own deaths for a few months and mounting a revolt.
The film focuses exclusively on one workforce member, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working in Auschwitz. With intricate, unbroken shots, the camera gazes exclusively at him, following behind his shoulders as he races to complete his tasks, or focusing on his expressive, nearly silent face. Nemes carries us through hell as Saul shepherds new arrivals into cyanide chambers disguised as delousing showers, then scrubs the floors clean for the next group. Our off-camera glances at naked, lifeless bodies being dragged away, or the sounds of pounding and screaming behind the doors, create an atmosphere of immeasurable horror.
No commentary or narration of any sort is required. Like Saul, we stay silent, avoid eye contact and keep our head bowed downward. It is a marvel of aesthetic control, speaking almost entirely from images, giving the film a documentary feel that it earns the hard way and puts to worthy use. We have entered a place where a false step could be fatal.
Rohrig, also in his feature film debut, is equally realistic. He avoids emoting, simply moving forward at a fast clip in the hope of lasting another day. Then he sees a young, unconscious boy being suffocated by a camp doctor for somehow surviving his group’s poisoning. Saul is ordered to remove “it” for autopsy and burning. But this is an order he can’t follow. He regards the child as if he was his own boy, and secretly tries to locate a rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
This is a time when a number of fellow prisoners hope to gather weapons and construct an uprising, while others try to find ways to protect their own lives. Yet amid this flood of humanity Saul feels his most meaningful last act would be to care for a dead boy.
“Son of Saul” is a difficult film, not only in its moral issues, creative formalism and physical atrocities, but in its scrupulous authenticity. The dialogue is a Babel of confusion, as the camp’s international prisoners speak hushed Hungarian, Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew as the commandants bark bullying German. Characters of strength and weakness appear without introduction and the time line moves in jerks and starts. Yet this is artlessness in the service of realism. The prisoners, and we viewers, sense that the war is nearing an end and the Final Solution is racing ahead at top speed to finish. They will soon be killed; there is not a moment left for discussion.
The most barbaric chapter in European history returns to cinema time and again. Two of the greatest Hollywood directors of the World War II era, John Ford and George Stevens, were assigned camera crews to record documentary footage of newly liberated Nazi extermination camps. Ford, a Navy captain, instructed his men to capture images of brutality against the dead, the dying and the survivors in careful close-ups. Their films, less faulty than human memory, and capable to preserve images of physical evidence against decomposition or loss, could be evidence for use in military tribunals or courts. In May 1945, Stevens, a lieutenant colonel in the army, filmed Dachau to show that the prisoners’ airtight “showers” were not showers at all.
The power of the image transcends any other form of communication. Dark, haunting images of the Holocaust have remained in focus long after the postwar Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis. Stevens never returned to the musical comedies that built his career; 15 years after chronicling Dachau he directed “The Diary of Anne Frank.” But even as we move 60 years past the Holocaust, these stories reflect the raw reality we live in today. Once it was Europe, but look across the world today and genocide is still happening.
Son of Saul
Rated: R for disturbing violence and some graphic nudity. Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár and Urs Rechn. Director: László Nemes. Running time: 107 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In Hungarian, German, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French.