It’s relatively safe to assume that moviegoers who buy a ticket for Son of Saul don’t need the details of the Holocaust spelled out for them. So when director and co-writer László Nemes drops you in the middle of the action in his feature debut (and Golden Globe winner), it doesn’t take long to get oriented. The opening shot, in a field in 1944 Auschwitz, is blurred, with a figure walking toward the camera. When the man stops, the lens focuses, showing in sharp profile of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner of the Sonderkommando ordered to help put his people to death.
We’ll stay with Saul throughout the film’s 147 minutes. The camera follows him—often just behind his back so we see what he sees—as he helps herds of less fortunate prisoners into gas chambers, collects the valuables from their clothes, and scrubs blood off the floor and walls after the bodies are disposed of. At other times, Saul might be charged with shoveling ashes or helping his commanders with more palatable tasks such as picking a lock.
It’s likely that Saul typically carried out these duties robotically and perhaps with a waning will to live. He regains a sense of purpose, however, soon after the film’s first gassing. A boy survives the fatal fumes and is dragged, coughing, onto an examination table, where a doctor completes the job. Saul approaches and says that the boy is his son, and requests that he not be cremated yet. The doctor turns out to be a prisoner himself and agrees to let him have five minutes with the body at the end of the day. Now Saul has a singular mission: to find a rabbi who can help give his child a proper burial.
Nemes and co-writer Clara Royer, also a first-time scripter, fill Son of Saul with little center-stage dialogue but maintain a cacophony of languages, shouting, wails, and gunfire in the background, adding to the sense of chaos and uncertainty amid which Saul must secretly search for a rabbi. The Sonderkommando are as closely guarded and frequently shoved around as the Jews marked for death; one suspicious move, and Saul could be killed, too. The filmmakers expertly set up the Nazis’ savage mindset and the camp’s atmosphere with the first group of the gassed; the victims are told that they’re needed for jobs, to remember where they set their clothes, and that they will be given soup after taking their showers, making the truth all the more gutting.
Though you may try to suss out what’s going on around Saul—particularly the revolt the Sonderkommando are organizing—the director leans on long, immersive takes to keep you with the main character. The technique adds a propulsion to Saul’s effort, who continually insinuates himself into pockets of men and whispers “Rabbi?” to others who may not speak Hungarian or even be from his camp.
Throughout, it’s unclear whether the boy is actually Saul’s son, a reminder of his youth, a symbol of innocence among brutality, or something else, but it doesn’t matter: That he get a respectful burial has ignited a passion within Saul, a motive that matters more to him than his own life. Son of Saul, therefore, shouldn’t be brushed off as just another Holocaust film. It’s a story of a man who fights for triumph in the worst of circumstances, a parable about how the slightest glimmer of light can give those engulfed by tragedy a renewed sense of life.
Son of Saul opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.