A disorienting, claustrophobic film that’s so impressively photographed that it’s difficult to endure, Hungarian director László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” transpires in the bowels of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, where the disquieting pleas of people being shuffled into gas chambers echo through its cold, dimly lit corridors. Their cries have become ambient noise to Saul Auslaender (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish Hungarian Sonderkommando who is forced to escort his own people to their deaths on a daily basis. It’s a job so unfathomably horrific that it has rendered Saul virtually numb to his surroundings, a sensation that DP Mátyás Erdély’s captures in a dizzying adhesion to Röhrig’s character. With a few exceptions, the horrors of his environment are just out of focus, a foggy nightmare on the periphery of his chiseled visage that, while weary, still shows some sign of determination.
One day, after a routine extermination for which hundreds are stripped naked and filed to their deaths, a post-mortem anomaly draws the attention of several Dr. Mengele types to a young boy that Saul recognizes to be his estranged son. Desperate to save the body from twisted experiments and the eventual flames of the incinerator, Saul conspires with the coroner–a prisoner himself–in order to hide the body until he can locate a Rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
Between Nemes’ extremely harrowing story (which he co-wrote with first timer Clara Royer) and Erdély’s narrow perspective, which makes us feel like we’re swimming upstream through the gates of hell with blinders on, “Son of Saul” is often difficult to comprehend, both from an emotional and visual standpoint. No doubt this is the director’s intention, and one long take after another prove taxing to the nervous system. Nemes might spare us most of the graphic details of the atrocities occurring around Saul, but with no score, only sparse dialogue and chilling sound design, your imagination probably won’t be doing you any favors.
Where the film becomes almost unbearably tense is in the third act, when Saul’s attention is drawn to another matter: an uprising developing among his compatriots (based on an actual event) requires his participation, and if he abandons his friends in order to tend to his son, he’ll essentially be jeopardizing their lives for someone who’s already dead. But Saul is clearly vested more in his faith than the corporeal, and while the film captures the inconceivably sickening reality of places like Auschwitz in as authentic a manner as I’d care to witness, it’s the central character’s unwavering conviction that Nemes clings to. “Son of Saul” demands at least one viewing, though many audiences will need a moment of decompression after being in such intimate proximity to Saul for 107 minutes. Röhrig’s performance is very affecting, and the film deserves an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Language Film. We’ll see when they announce at 8:30 this morning.
“Son of Saul” opens tomorrow at DC’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.
— M. Parsons