Unflinchingly grim and despairing but undeniably powerful and astonishing, Hungarian film “Son of Saul” will haunt you for a long time after its last shot. While never feeling artsy or exploitative at all, this extraordinary film firmly stays around the limited viewpoint of one desperate man trapped right within the dark center of the Holocaust, and there are many gut-chilling moments as the movie palpably conveys to us the unspeakable horror and madness of this systemic inhuman evil. We are horrified by the impossible circumstance which he and many others are helplessly and ruthlessly being driven into, we are disturbed by his own madness which seems to be fueled by overwhelming despair and desperation, and we are saddened by how much he is willing to go further for something which will probably not mean much to himself in the end.
The background of the movie is not directly specified, but we come to gather its basic details during the opening scene which gradually reveals its dark horror to come and strike us. It is the Auschwitz concentration camp during the late period of the World War II, and we meet a Hungarian Jewish man named Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig). He and his co-workers are the members of a work unit called ‘Sonderkommando’ (it means ‘special unit’ in German, by the way), and they have been forced to aid in the mass extermination process at one of the gas chamber/crematorium facilities in the camp.
We look at another ‘usual’ day in this atrocious place as a bunch of people are sent there to be exterminated. They are told that they are going to have a shower for cleaning their bodies, and Saul and other Sonderkommando members lead these doomed people to the gas chamber after helping them taking off their clothes and personal articles in the ‘changing room’. Once the gas chamber finishes its ghastly job, Saul and his colleagues clean and scrub the gas chamber, and they also take care of dead bodies as well as whatever is left behind in the changing room. Bodies are promptly turned into ashes as soon as they are sent up to the crematorium operated by another group of Sonderkommandos, and then we see how Sonderkommandos dispose of heaps of human ashes later.
What Saul and other Sonderkommandos do is horrible to say the least, but their extreme human condition throws hard moral dilemmas at us as we observe their grim world where survival comes first above anything else. They are treated a little better compared to many other prisoners in the camp, and that may increase their chance of survival a bit, but they are still expendable as before. While doing their jobs as ordered to survive another day, many of Saul’s colleagues become nervous about whether they will soon be exterminated just like their predecessors, and it turns out they are actually planning something behind their back.
In case of Saul, he has the other matter to occupy himself with. When he and others are handling dead bodies from the gas chamber as before, they happen to find a young boy remained alive. The boy is quickly killed by a German doctor after a brief examination, but Saul becomes increasingly obsessed with the boy. He claims that the boy is his son, and he begins to search for a rabbi who can administer a proper burial for his ‘son’.
While never confirming whether Saul’s claim is true or not, the movie accumulates more tension on the screen as following his hopeless personal quest. He manages to secure the boy’s body for a while, but, not so surprisingly, he cannot find a rabbi to help him, though that does not deter him at all as he stubbornly continues his search. At one point, he gets himself hurled into one literally infernal moment along with hundreds of panicked people who have just arrived in the camp, but he is still looking for a rabbi even though he may get himself killed at any moment.
It is quite remarkable that the director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer for his first feature film, somehow strikes the right balance for keeping the movie under his austere control. We usually see no more than Saul, and that enables Nemes to present many of the grimmest moments in the film effectively without being too much or too less. For his handheld camera which usually sticks around Saul throughout the film, the cinematographer Mátyás Erdély used 40mm lens, and this technical choice, which creates the very shallow depth of field on the screen, accentuates Saul’s limited viewpoint along with the screen ratio of 1.37:1. While things often look blurry in this intentionally narrowed view, our ears come to pay more attention to the sound designer Tamás Zányi’s masterful mix of human sounds and other numerous sound effects on the soundtrack, and what Erdély, Zányi, and other technical crew members of the film achieve under Nemes’s confident direction is a stupefying example of the power of suggestion on audiences.
And everything in the film depends on the understated performance by first-time actor Géza Röhrig. We do not get to know a lot about Saul, but Röhrig’s weary, hardened face speaks volume for what Saul has gone through, and he did a tremendous job of embodying his character’s despair and madness as ably carrying the movie on his shoulders. Regardless of whether that dead boy is really his son or not, the decent burial of his ‘son’ seems to be a chance of redemption to Saul’s warped mind, and we come to understand to some degrees how important that is for him, but the movie does not overlook how his obsession inadvertently endangers not only himself but also others who are as desperate as him. The supporting actors surrounding Röhrig are also effective in their realistic performances, and it is interesting to note that one of the supporting characters in the film is a real-life figure who also appears in Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone” (2001), another harrowing Holocaust drama which overlaps with “Son of Saul” in many aspects (both of their stories are partially based on a real-life incident which happened in the Auschwitz during 1944 October).
“Son of Saul”, which received several awards including the Grand Prize of the Jury award at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year and will probably win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in this year, is one of the most difficult movies to watch during recent years in my opinion, but the raw, stark emotional power generated from its grim but unmistakably human heart of darkness is something you have to watch and experience. I often found my mind being trembled and overwhelmed during the screening, and I was reminded of one memorable quote from “Chinatown” (1974): “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”