From Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Holocaust of the Second World War, is well-trodden territory on the big screen. It’s subject matter that will never fail to sicken anyone with a modicum of empathy and humanity about them, and it’s subject matter whose grim content will be familiar to even the most sheltered of lives.
It’s enormously impressive therefore for first-time feature film director, László Nemes, to not only produce a piece of work that pays great respect to the plight of those countless, predominantly Jewish lives lost in Auschwitz, but to in fact almost completely re-invent the holocaust film genre in doing so, with a superbly innovative and deeply harrowing piece of film making.
The story follows Saul Ausländer, (the excellent Géza Röhrig), through his thankless daily toil within a Nazi concentration camp. Saul, along with a number of others, is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners tasked with ushering other prisoners into the death chambers and clearing away their corpses afterwards. The group undertake their daily activities in the knowledge that they themselves have only a limited lifespan within the camp. The need to remain fit, active and productive within their roles is paramount in order to delay the inevitable. Eventually their numbers will be up too.
Regardless, detaching their emotions from their work as best they can, they endure the same sickening ritual day in and out.
On discovering that the dead body of his son (or at least this is what is implied) – another victim of the chambers – is to be subjected to an autopsy, Saul suddenly finds a reason to believe in his futile existence within the camp, and sets about not only rescuing the body from the mortuary slab, but then hiding it, and embarking upon the seemingly impossible task of burying it within the camp’s grounds. To do this right, and according to his religion, he will also need to enlist the help of a rabbi; and so begins his relentless search.
But from where? And at what cost?
Son of Saul is almost like some sort of advanced computer game in its directorial style. László Nemes’ use of narrow, almost portrait footage is claustrophobic to say the least; very much a mirror to Saul’s tunnel-visioned ambitions and perspective. Frequently I found myself craning my neck in a vain attempt to gain a more lateral view of the gruesome scenes that were unfolding, like some kind of rubber-necking passer by surveying the wreckage of a twisted car crash.
But gratuitous it is not. In restricting what we see, Nemes reveals little of the graphic horror, keeping us intrigued and more importantly, leaving our minds working overtime. The duping, the looting and subsequent unseen dispatch of wave after wave of prisoners; their final cries of anguish and distress from behind closed iron doors, and the indescribable scenes of murder that are largely only suggested, around the pits of fire.
There’s no way to sugar-coat it, Son of Saul is pretty hard-going and desperately bleak, but it’s evocative and brilliantly engaging.
In many ways though it’s a peculiar film. Although evoking predictable emotions of anger, repulsion and vengeance, to name but a few, the over-riding emotion is one of massive frustration – not so much with the SS guards, but with Saul himself – as time and again, he places not only himself, but many others in grave peril through his own selfish compulsion to blindly follow through with his plan, come what may. It’s a plan as non-sensical to those around him as it is of utter importance to Saul himself.
Beside himself with frustration and annoyance, one of Saul’s compadres quips: “Saul, you forgot the living for the dead!”
One can only presume that such non-sensical actions are the actions of a man who has finally reached the tipping point where there really is no longer anything to lose; an apparent need to show a commitment to a boy in death that he was unable to provide for him when he was alive? It’s a point however that remains unclear.
What is clear though is that director László Nemes has put together an extraordinarily powerful and brilliantly innovative film that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as the most revered films within the genre, and that is high praise indeed.
Not to be missed.