Is a rigidly formalist approach to a film about the Holocaust appropriate? This is a valid question, and one that can be asked after seeing László Nemes’ debut feature Son of Saul. The answer would be personal, but an argument can be made that the subject is so heavy that respectful restraint should be applied, in danger of taking away too much from its gravely serious nature. Nemes uses an array of visual and aural choices to sketch the psychological state of its titular main character, Saul (a mesmerizing Géza Röhrig), and his reaction to the world around him, which is the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Shallow depth-of-field photography, virtual POV camera placement for most of the running time, long takes, and a soundscape that makes it hard to understand characters at times (not in the least because a lot of the dialogue is whispered) all compound to the portrayal of a character who purposefully locks out the hell around him as much as possible, if only to not completely lose his mind.
The reason for this is because Saul is a Sonderkommando. These were people who made up groups of workers in death camps mainly responsible for the disposal of the corpses of gas chamber victims. This was not a voluntary job: people were assigned this job upon arrival in the camps, on threat of their own death. In the chilling opening scenes we are shown Saul at work, preparing a batch of freshly arrived victims who are led straight from the trains to the gas chambers, all the while being told they are getting a shower. Where Steven Spielberg opted for a sigh of relief, Nemes takes the realistic route in a clinical dissection of the efficient, almost factory-like work process of the gassing and its aftermath: the rounding up of prisoners into the ‘shower’ room, the tedious waiting until the cries and desperate bangs on the doors die out, the sorting of clothes and other possessions and the disposal of bodies. During all of this, the hand-held camera stays close to Saul in medium or close-up shots (most of the film is shot in medium), often over-the-shoulder to show where his focus is. This focus usually is away from the actual horror, which means that things like the dragging around of naked corpses usually happen on the edge of the frame and outside of the depth-of-field. It’s as if Saul doesn’t want to see it, having numbed himself to preserve his sanity. Faces of victims are never shown, which gives them even more anonymity, a seemingly purposeful choice by the director.
There is one victim Saul’s gaze does lock onto, though: a young boy still breathing (which is perfunctorily stopped by an SS doctor as soon as possible). The reason for this is that Saul recognizes the boy as his own son. A religious man, Saul would like to have his son get a proper Jewish burial, which leads him to seek for rabbis in any batch of new arrivals. In the meantime, he is also involved in an escape plan hatched by some of his Sonderkommando colleagues, though he often screws up his assignments because he gives priority to his dead son’s burial. It doesn’t help that Saul is a Hungarian Jew, a minority among the mainly German Jews in the camp (he is pejoratively named Ausländer, German for ‘foreigner’, by several of his fellow inmates). He is constantly jerked around by superiors and others who think they can use him for their advantage, often shoved left or right like a rag doll. It allows him to keep a low profile most of the time, though he does almost get himself killed in a particularly hellish scene of mass murder at the hands of the SS.
Nemes chooses to keep the hell, throughout the film, mostly on the fringes of the shot, or at least outside the depth-of-field. Interestingly, this makes the horror all the more harrowing. Unusual camera placement and shallow depth-of-field allow the viewer to experience the atrocities almost firsthand, but in a cold, almost detached way, which mimics the psyche of the characters through whose eyes we see the action. The sound design is also layered work, disorienting at first, forcing the viewer to keep his ears pricked to follow what is going on narrative-wise, and enhancing the sense of a factory-in-hell through ambient noises and harshly barked orders, often not subtitled.
There is no denying that these stylistic choices draw attention to themselves, which could make people perceive them as a gimmick, the way Mommy detractors dismissed Xavier Dolan’s use of the square frame last year. But the directorial choices serve a function here (as they did for Dolan, by the way), which leads us back to the original question: if directorial flourishes are ‘allowed’ in a Holocaust film. A discussion perhaps not best suited for a review, but still, as they strongly enhance the horrifying aspects of the story, I’d personally say such flourishes are acceptable, although I can see why they would have nay-sayers. There is no denying, however, that Nemes at least has given the ‘genre’, to somewhat disrespectfully label it, of Holocaust drama a fresh way of looking at the horror of the death camps. To do this through the eyes of a Jew helping the ‘industry of death’ of the Nazis, even if it is with a gun to the head, is also a remarkable and (as far as I know) new one, as there will always be the moral ambiguity of selfishly preferring life over the high road of taking the bullet, a road no viewers of Son of Saul thankfully will ever have the option to choose. But one can ponder. The way that Nemes portrays the efficient, almost factory-like process of extermination and the way the Sonderkommandos profit off it enhances this ambiguity. Chilling and inhuman, and the Sonderkommandos are, no matter how you shake it, cogs in this machinery. How do you deal with that? This is the core question the film asks, and the answer lies in the formalist choices the director has taken: you shut it out.
What lifts the film to true greatness, however, is the core of the film, which is Géza Röhrig’s performance of Saul Ausländer. Much of his work is internal, with a lot of repressed emotion, but the key to understanding Saul is in his eyes. Desperation, fear, and eagerness are all given a subtle treatment by Röhrig, often in a single glance. Son of Saul could be in line for a major prize in Cannes this year, and Röhrig might just be the one who takes it home for the film. But prize or no prize, there is no denying Son of Saul is a major work, and Nemes is a talent to keep an eye on. He has reinvigorated the Holocaust genre single-handedly, and that is an impressive feat for a first-time director.