Holocaust movies are so common that most of us simply tune them out. First, they’re a downer and, second, haven’t we seen it all before?
Well, no. At least not in the case of “Son of Saul,” Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ first feature, which approaches the horrors of Hitler’s “final solution” from a unique and soul-rattling vantage point. Small wonder this Golden Globe winner is the favorite to win the foreign language Academy Award.
Our “hero” is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando — Jews spared to do the dirty work for their Nazi captors at a death camp in Poland. For now they slave. In a few months, they, too, will face execution.
In a typical day, Saul rises early, meets a trainload of newcomer Jews and herds them through the camp to the death house (he’s like a blank-faced elementary school crossing guard).
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There the condemned are told that before receiving a meal and job assignments they should disrobe for a shower. They are reminded to note the number of the hook where they have hung their clothing.
Once these new victims have been locked inside the gas chamber, Saul and his fellow workers try to ignore the screaming and pounding. They search the clothing for valuables. Later they will cart the bodies away to be burned and scrub away the blood and feces to make way for the next batch.
All this is depicted in one long, uninterrupted take. It would be unbearable save for the presentational style Nemes has adopted.
Typically the only thing in focus is Saul’s face (sometimes the back of his head) which fills most of the frame. To the right and left, blessedly out of focus, we often can make out piles of naked bodies and screaming German guards.
It’s a brilliant visual representation of how Sonderkommandos like the inexpressive Saul avoid going mad: They look straight ahead, try not to take in details, try to see the soon-to-die not as individuals but as a weeping, shuffling mass.
Meanwhile, thanks to Tamas Zanyi’s brilliant sound design, we are fully aware of what’s going on beyond the blurry, shadowy images surrounding our protagonist.
Saul knows that his days are numbered. So when he witnesses a miracle — a teenage boy somehow survives the gas chamber, though he is immediately throttled by a German — Saul hatches a plan to save the adolescent from the flames, to give him a real Jewish burial.
To that end he snatches the body from the autopsy room and scours the camp for a rabbi who can provide the proper prayers.
He says he’s doing all this because the boy is his son.
Occasionally Matyas Erdely’s hand-held camera pulls back just long enough for us to get a good long look at one of the German officers, or to take in a lush forest where Saul is sent to shovel the ashes of dead Jews into an otherwise bucolic lake.
And while all this is going on, the other members of Saul’s work detail are planning a jail break. They may be dead men, but at least they’ll die free.
“Son of Saul,” winner of last year’s grand prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, is almost too much to handle. Not just for the horrifying subject matter, but for the repetitive nature of Saul’s day as he stumbles from one ghastly vision to the next.
Very little is explained. We must be content to watch and deduce what’s going on. (Part of the problem is that the inmates represent various nationalities and lack a common language.)
But as a directorial debut the film is little short of astounding. It gives us one more reason to never forget.
(At the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli.)
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Son of Saul’
Rated R. Time: 1:47.
In several languages, with subtitles