It is April, but if I see another film as good as László Nemes’ Son of Saul this year, I will be amazed. There follow some entirely inadequate words about it…
At a screening of his predictably dreadful 2011 drama/documentary film Auschwitz, schlocky German director Uwe Boll commented that he wanted to make a film portraying the day-to-day working of the Nazi’s most notorious death camp, demonstrating how the holocaust was an industrial process. Boll’s film was a contemptible farrago, despite claims (eagerly stoked by Boll) that the film was a depraved horror-show, its greatest crime was being boring. However, the germ of his idea of exploring the how a factory-like system of mass-killing would have a dehumanising effect and would reflect on contemporary crises such as Darfur, was an interesting one even if it was hard to accept his reasoning at face value.
Where Boll failed, Hungarian director László Nemes has succeeded. Son of Saul is a film that is simultaneously almost unbearable to watch, but impossible not to. There are no shortage of Holocaust dramas – the best, such as Spielberg’s stately Schindler’s List, often keep the camps themselves at a distance, reserved for piercing moments of shock and horror in a larger drama. The worst make the events palatable with TV-movie melodrama.
Anti-semitism and anti-refugee sentiments and politics are a very live issue in the UK (on the day I saw this film, the UK government voted against a bill to accept a mere 3,000 lone child refugees) it is important to remember the depths of inhumanity to our fellows to which we can sink.
Incredibly this is Nemes’ debut feature, but it demonstrates a complete mastery of film making skill. The slight story follows (quite literally) a camp prisoner named Saul Ausländer (played with great intensity by poet Géza Röhrig), Saul is a Sonderkommando, these were Jewish prisoners tasked with aiding their captors march victims into the gas chambers and then in the disposal of bodies after. Because Sonderkommando units are witness to the very worst of Nazi crimes, they were executed.
The Sonderkommando are among of the most problematic and troubling historical topics in the history of the Holocaust. Nemes has treated the subject with immense sensitivity. It is clear that these men are prisoners and victims, and who are we to judge? The director has resisted the temptation to present the tale as a story of survival (as detailed in this terrific Guardian interview with Andrew Pulver). Originally planned as a French production, Nemes had to find financing in Hungary as his approach was deemed too harsh to be commercially viable.
Saul witnesses a Nazi doctor examine and then kill a young boy who has somehow survived the gas chamber. Saul takes it upon himself to rescue his body at immense personal risk and finds a Rabbi to give him a religious burial. Saul’s story is desperate; the boy is dead, he just wants to give him some small amount of dignity.
Using long takes and framing in using the Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1, Nemes takes you where no-one should want to go, into the heart of an industrialised process of mass murder. And yet this is not a film that ever feels gratuitous or tips over into the kind of graphic material that characterises exploitation films, I raise the spectre of Isla: She Wolf of the SS or Men Behind The Sun solely to assure you that this film is not remotely similar).
Portrait-like academy framing means that Röhrig’s head or face often obscures the most horrible details, the film also uses depth of field in a very intricate way so that shallow focus renders the background blurry whilst still conveying the horror of the environment. The effect is to draw the viewer into Saul’s world and show it as he perceives it. This broken, traumatised man is not a passive protagonist – he is relentless in the pursuit of his simple goal – but he’s no hero. The film does not present heroes. Everyone is dead. Even the living.
As brilliant as Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography is (and make no mistake it is quite brilliant), a huge amount of the film’s power comes from an extraordinary use of sound (sound editor Tamás Székely, sound designer Tamás Zányi, and their team have done superlative work). It is the sound of Auschwitz in Son of Saul that truly transforms the film into a vision of hell on earth. While scenes in the camp crematorium are a cacophony of demonic industry, it is often the smaller details that hurt. The way the Nazi’s coerce the masses of new arrivals through to the showers by telling them that the soup the will receive afterwords is getting cold will send shards of ice into your heart.
The combination of direction, cinematography, sound design and Röhrig’s performance make Son of Saul a remarkably immersive experience, but it as an immersion into hell. Much of the film’s first half seems to happen in real time and the claustrophobia of the Auschwitz interiors is nearly unbearable.
Immersion is a term that has become very popular since the reintroduction of 3D and the use of large formats such as IMAX. But I can think of very, very few recent films that are as visceral in 3D or IMAX (or both) as Son of Saul is in 2D with a screen ratio that lost popularity to scope in the nineteen fifties. This film should remove the word from the critical lexicon used for comic book movies forevermore.
The word ‘masterpiece’ is thrown around far too easily, often for any blockbuster that manages to be better than adequate, it has been reduced to hyperbolic noise plastered under stars on posters lining tube platforms.
Nevertheless, Son of Saul is a masterpiece. A brutal but humane portrait of mans inhumanity to man. It is vital cinema.