A contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, László Nemes’ debut feature, Son of Saul, is a harrowing philosophical tale that reminds us that the horrors of the past are still ever present. Photographed entirely with a 40mm lens in the Academy ratio (1.37:1), the film opens with an out-of-focus long shot; after a few moments, blurry people approach the camera and the long-shot becomes an extreme close-up. This method has been done before in a different manner by the late Sergio Leone for the opening of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). As Roger Ebert noted in his 2003 reassessment of the film, “The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us. In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that . . . the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see . . .”
Ebert’s observation aptly applies to Son of Saul as well, since the frame is centered around the main character, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig). Once he is introduced in the first shot, the camera pans to follow his path as he shepherds Jews into Auschwitz.
Saul is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner who is forced to work as a member of the Sonderkommando. His job consists of leading Jewish prisoners into the gas chamber, collecting their valuables, and then disposing of the burnt bodies. All this changes one afternoon when a young boy miraculously survives the gassing, but soon succumbs moments after being removed. Because of this, Nazi officials request that an official report be submitted, which includes an order for the camp doctor to autopsy the boy. Saul is emotionally distraught, claiming the boy as his son. He then proceeds on a quest to find a Rabbi to give the boy a proper burial. This comes at a time where rumors spread among the prisoners that the Sonderkommando will be liquidated. The rumors prompt a small group of prisoners to hatch an escape plan, with or without Saul’s help.
One of the most inventive aspects of the film is cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camerawork. The camera follows Saul in a series of one-shots, only cutting at major scene breaks, or to show something from Saul’s perspective at important points of the narrative. For the majority of the film, Saul’s existence remains in the limit of the frame. The result creates a sense of claustrophobia which elongates the tension throughout the film’s 107-minute running time. Colors are desaturated, most likely to mirror the dire conditions and atrocities the Nazis inflict upon the Jewish prisoners. Perhaps the most effective component of the film is the melancholy score by László Melis that seeps into certain moments and gives them an emotional gravitas without veering into sentimentality.
In the past 25 years, the Holocaust has been examined in numerous films, the most notable being Schindler’s List (1992), Life is Beautiful (1997), The Counterfeiters (2007), and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). Nemes’ Son of Saul carries on their sensitive approach to the subject matter, yet goes beyond that to subvert audience expectations. While the aforementioned films build their narratives around the day-to-day plights of the prisoners with the fear of the gas chambers ever present in their minds, Nemes takes us directly into the gas chambers within the first ten minutes—and continuously does so for the remainder of the film. Nemes’ intent is not to sensationalize the horror or desensitize the audience by subjecting them to it head first; rather, Nemes is concerned with something beyond the violence and bloodshed: the audacity of hope and the embodiment of humanity.
Toward the end of the film, a prisoner criticizes Saul by saying, “You failed the living for the dead.” This accusation is well founded, depending on which point of view you choose to align with, for it also extends from the greater questions the film raises. Not only does the film solemnly recycle the unanswered philosophical and religious questions that have arisen in the eve of the Holocaust, it also leaves us with a few of our own. The first one is rather basic: whether Saul’s motivation is a selfish endeavor, or one that is righteously justified? This ambiguity may frustrate most viewers, for if they cannot identify with Saul’s endeavor, how else can they genuinely connect with or feel any emotion for him? The second one concerns Saul’s humanity: does it lie in the confines of the camera frame, or only exist when he fully escapes from its sight? These may be difficult to answer, but in these troubled times we are living in now, they are worth pondering.
Son of Saul
Starring: Géza Röhrig
Written by: László Nemes and Clara Royer
Directed by: László Nemes
Running time: 107 minutes