Son of Saul, the first film (to be released next week on DVD) of László Nemes — he both directed and co-wrote it, and it won both the grand prize at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film — is the latest in a seemingly endless string of Holocaust films. However, both in its peculiar plot — which focuses exclusively on the story of one man, Saul, brilliantly performed by Géza Röhrig — and in its cinematography — a hand-held, mobile camera that remains persistently and tightly focused on Saul — it marks out its own territory. The film is simultaneously an immersive, physically taxing experience of life in a camp and a self-conscious reflection on the conditions of, and motives for, Holocaust movies.
Saul is distinctive in a number of ways. Consider, for example, its focus on one man. As Nemes observes in a brief scene analysis of the film's opening segment, this is the "story of one man," Saul, who has "become almost like a robot." Saul is a Sonderkommando, whom Nemes describes thus:
The Sonderkommandos were a group of prisoners who were actually separated from the rest of the other prisoners — male prisoners who were forced to assist the Nazis in the extermination process. These were the prisoners who had to accompany the deported people to the gas chamber and then take out their corpses and burn the corpses in the ovens at the crematorium and then scatter the ashes. So these were the people who were at the heart of the extermination machine. They were, in exchange, better fed and better clothed, but they knew that they would be liquidated in a few months [NPR interview, "Fresh Air"].
In preparation for the film, Nemes worked his way through volumes of testimonies, known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz, from members of this group.
Because the Sonderkommandos had intermediate status between the Nazis and their fellow Jews, and because their jobs afforded them greater liberty of movement than the other prisoners, the film's concentration on Saul offers a compressed and highly particularized access to the entire camp. Early in the film, Saul observes a Nazi doctor standing over the body of a young boy who has inexplicably survived the gas chamber. As the doctor calmly smothers the boy to death, he orders an autopsy. It is a mark of the morally topsy-turvy world of the camp that an autopsy is necessary to determine, not the cause of death, but the cause of survival. His attention riveted on the boy's body, Saul asks another worker in the camp to hide the body so that he can find a rabbi to say Kaddish and provide a proper burial. Saul's motives are mysterious. He repeatedly claims the boy is his son, even as others counter: "You don't have a son." Saul is as mechanical in his burial quest as he is in his assigned duties in the camp, and that raises a basic question about his mission — whether it marks a kind of transcendence of, or at least an ennobling rebellion against, the dehumanization of the camp, or whether it is merely a mechanized obsession rendered absurd and even futile by the very existence of the camps. Revolt pervades the conversations of the Sonderkommandos, who hatch plots to try to undermine the Nazis. (There was in fact a Sonderkommando rebellion at Auschwitz in 1944.)
Because it never leaves him, the camera forces viewers to come to terms with Saul's pursuit. The film's director of photography, Mátyás Erdély, employs two techniques: Besides the hand-held camera, he uses shallow focus, which leaves everything beyond the center of the frame blurry. The jittery, mobile camera is unsettling. That the camera remains fixed on Saul creates a nervous uncertainty in the viewer, who longs not just for the camera to be still but also for it to show us what Saul sees, or at least to provide a wider context for Saul's movements and facial expressions. Nemes himself notes that the film deliberately excludes location images. There are no long train tracks leading into the concentration camp or signs indicating arrival at Auschwitz.
The result is that the film is continuously disorienting and physically exhausting, almost sickening. We hear screams, moans, and screeches; we see indistinctly the piles of mutilated bodies; and we feel the encroachment, on one side, of the lurking guards and, on the other, of the mounting piles of ashes. What we see and hear most is the non-stop work of the Sonderkommandos: the scrubbing of the crematoria, the shoveling of ashes, and the transporting of carts full of what the Nazis call "pieces."
The film offers viewers no relief or release. There is no musical soundtrack; its absence keeps our ears attentive only to what Saul hears. The lack of artifice — in this case of music that might move our emotions in one way or another — effectively excludes the possibility of catharsis, the purging of the emotions of pity and fear.
The immersive realism of the film has a kind of documentary or even live-action feel to it. This is one of the ways in which the film exhibits self-consciousness. It repeatedly draws attention to its status as a recording of events, as in the use of the hand-held camera, which simultaneously makes us participate in Saul's quest and makes us aware of the fact that we are watching something that is being filmed. By contrast, more standard film techniques are both less immersive and less noticeable as techniques.
Film critics have seen Nemes's choice to record on 35mm film, a now antiquated method, as a kind of homage to earlier Holocaust films. But homage is not the right term, as the allusions to previous Holocaust films serve to put the entire genre to the test, to ask why we make and view such films. In a telling scene, Saul and some of his colleagues use a contraband camera to try to record the activities of the camp. They hope to photograph atrocities, smuggle the film out of the camp, and thus issue a cry for help. Of course, every Holocaust film purports to be a smuggled document, a recording of unfathomable atrocities. What is our goal as viewers? Do we think that art can render the unfathomable conceivable? Make it intelligible? Even redeem it from the horrors it depicts? Here the quest of the viewer dovetails with Saul's mission — the pursuit of purpose in a world that is at once hyperpurposive in its relentless activity and driven by an incommensurable madness. Small in scope and minimalist in technique, Son of Saul grapples with the largest of questions about the legacy of the Holocaust and our endless quest to comprehend it.
Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012 by Baylor University Press.