Son Of Saul opens with an out-of-focus shot of an empty forest glade. The camera is handheld, but it still stands passively still for nearly two minutes, until protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) walks from the background to the foreground, and his grey face takes over the frame in ultra-sharp detail. It takes much longer for viewers to find their bearings in the chaos that immediately follows. But as the setting becomes clear in director László Nemes' shockingly brilliant debut, the ambition, intelligence, and emotional heft of that strange opening shot does too. For the most part, as the film progresses, only Saul and the things that become important to him are meaningfully in focus. As a trustee in Auschwitz, assisting with the systematic execution of thousands of other Jews like himself, he's had to narrow his world down to his immediate surroundings. Everything outside his own survival becomes a blur, and the camera reflects and respects that.
Nemes' film is confident and manifestly singular
Saul is one of the Sonderkommando, the concentration camp prisoners who temporarily escaped execution by assisting their captors. He helps herd new prisoners into the gas chambers, then searches their discarded clothes for valuables afterward, and obediently helps clean up the mess. Nemes follows this process in long, unbroken, elegantly choreographed shots that take in all the disorderly horror of a new batch of prisoners being herded into the camp, stripped in changing rooms, and slaughtered en masse. As Saul scrubs the gas chamber floor afterward, with naked corpses heaped like garden waste in his periphery, he never changes expression. He's deadened, certainly, but not immune to the horror of what he's doing, or insensitive about the suffering around him. He's just learned to tamp down on any emotional reaction in order to keep himself going from day to day.
And then, miraculously, a child briefly survives the gas chamber. A Nazi doctor calmly suffocates the boy, but the damage is done: Saul has connected with something outside himself, and his defenses have begun to crack. Convinced that the boy was his son (which the film wisely never confirms nor disproves) Saul becomes obsessed with giving the child a proper Jewish burial rather than letting him go into a mass grave or the crematorium. And so the film unfolds, as Saul pursues the one goal that's still meaningful to him.
Holocaust films tend to have a familiar visual and emotional language, and a similar progression of events. The content varies, and the tone with it — there's a world of difference between the raw personal aftermath of Phoenix and the gooey sentimental schmaltz of The Book Thief — but the ideas of tasteful restraint and deep, somber melancholy tend to prevail over everything else. There's often a sense that any personal story in a Holocaust film is standing in for a thousand like it, lost in the genocide. But there's no sense of repetition or representation here — Nemes' film is confident and manifestly singular, both in the story it tells and the visual language he uses to tell it. (It's also Hungary's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.)
A lot of this is done through pacing. The Allies are approaching, the Nazis are desperately scaling up their operations, and the entire camp moves at Mach schnell speed. The men in Nemes' Auschwitz are constantly being yanked and shoved from one job to another. There's no dignity, no respite, and no somber contemplation to this film. It's a nervy race, with everyone pursuing their own hustles, and a sense that the system is disintegrating rapidly, though not rapidly enough.
There's also the anxious feeling that dozens of other plotlines are being pursued just offscreen. All around Saul are plans of rebellion and escape. There's a plot afoot to steal a camera and document what the Nazis are doing, before they can destroy the evidence of their war crimes. A few guards are extorting stolen wealth from the Sonderkommando, knowing there's a brisk trade in purloined valuables. All the frantic activity and crisscrossing agendas have the curious effect of intensifying Saul's quest. The conflicting plotlines complicate each other, requiring Saul to be ruthless about getting what he wants — while at the same time clarifying how truly small and personal, and therefore vivid and valuable, his obsession is in the grand scheme of things.
Much of the film's intensity comes from Röhrig's stolid performance. It's hard to evoke sympathy while playing a man on complete emotional lockdown, but Röhrig builds an implacable momentum by slowly scaling up Saul's determination and his ferocity as he gets closer to his small goal. Röhrig, a poet and Judaic Studies teacher with limited previous acting experience, gives a riveting performance. He's all contained desperation and uncompromising drive. Saul's stubbornness and obsession turn him into a bully, but Röhrig plays him like a grim action hero, stuck in an impossible situation and a diminutive, broken-down body. His refusal to compromise in the face of impossible odds becomes compelling, even as his agenda seems more and more ludicrous.
Son of Saul captures what a nightmare really feels like
Son Of Saul's real innovation, though, comes in its compellingly myopic design. Films about oppressive situations are often called nightmarish. But Nemes, his co-writer Clara Royer, and his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, capture what a nightmare really feels like: the subjective sense of dread, the constantly altering landscape, the fluidity of a situation built more around terror than around any fixed reality. The clatter and shrieks of the camp stand in for a score, making the entire story feel rough, muscular, and unpolished. Saul's focus on the child's corpse specifically makes the film into one of those anxiety nightmares about losing something, in which the dreamer keeps getting pushed further from it. It's dizzying and tremendously sad, but simultaneously exhilarating due to Nemes' complete control of his environment, and complete merging of his narrative and compositional elements. It isn't just a unique story, it's a unique execution.
It may be hard for audiences to identify with Saul, for all the humanity Röhrig gives him, and for all the suffering he endures. The same nervy rush and tight focus that make Son Of Saul feel unlike any other Holocaust movie also make it a claustrophobic viewing experience, especially as Saul's actions start causing other people to suffer. But if most Holocaust films are about survival, Son of Saul is a stunning portrait of a specific kind of survival: the kind where, in extremis, people radically reduce what success looks like. For the Sonderkommando, life required unutterable compromise. Son Of Saul grimly examines the effects and limits of that compromise, while never compromising itself.