While predicting the result of the Oscars can never be considered a sure thing, few would deny that there is a clear front runner for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Son of Saul, the first feature from Hungarian director László Nemes, has been taking the independent cinema world by storm since its premiere at Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix), culminating in a win for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and the expected Oscar nomination in the same category. After a qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles, the film has begun to reach other markets in the United States, allowing the rest of us to determine if it lives up to the hype.
The Saul of the title is our window into this world. Played by non-professional actor Géza Röhrig, Saul is imprisoned at Auschwitz and spends his time as part of the Sonderkommando,a cadre of Jews who work at the camps while imprisoned, usually in the capacity of cleaning up the gas chambers between exterminations. This life gives him a modicum of privilege, perhaps a bit of extra food here or there, and (theoretically, at least) a bit more One day he comes across a boy who somehow lived through the ordeal, choking for life amongst the dead, only to be summarily suffocated by the Nazis and marked for an autopsy. Feeling a surge of sympathy and a desire for peace for the boy, Saul claims that he is the boy’s father and wants to give him a proper burial. Such a feat requires not only extricating the body from the autopsy room with the help of a sympathetic doctor, but also the help of a Rabbi to bless the remains and perform the burial itself. Things are complicated even further when Saul is tapped to work with revolutionaries from within the compound with an uprising on their minds. Saul must choose what to do and who to trust while hiding under the watchful eye of his imprisoners.
Son of Saul differentiates itself in the way Nemes chooses to bring his vision of Auschwitz to life. Presented predominantly through a series of long takes in medium close-ups, Nemes and Matyas Erdely place the focus squarely on the humans and their ordeal. That is a term that can be taken literally here, as everything beyond that central area of the frame fades into a fuzzy blur, a camera trick that deftly reinforces the film’s sense of chaos and dislocation. The bodies of the deceased are little more than amorphous white piles of flesh, no definition to give them humanity, and the Nazis become a faceless pack of monsters, lording over their charges with their anonymity. The approach makes the film somewhat reminiscent of recent long take laden Birdman, though the focus is so much shallower here that it feels entirely unique, in part due to being presented in the Academy ratio, shrinking the field of view even further. The film never provides a strong geography of the camp; as Saul is ushered from place to place, never seeming to complete whatever he was sent to do before he is sent to do something else, the tight camera does not allow the viewer to place where he is in space with any confidence or regularity.
It is a thrilling and harrowing device in practice, making for an undeniably claustrophobic cinematic experience. Röhrig, with his gnarled, scarred nose and an ominous red X on his coat (designed to differentiate the workers from everyone else), generates so much sympathy, a man who sees this simple act, one that has to be more trouble than its worth considering he is not actually related to this boy, as the slightest sort of salvation. But in a place like this, a world defined by dimly lit hallways choked with streams of humanity, tight corners and nonstop paranoia, a place where at the drop of a dime a man’s life could end, even the slightest salvation is something to cling to. It is both fascinating and surprising that this is Röhrig’s first major film role, especially coming so late in life. He is such a natural presence on the screen, forced into the center of the frame for so much of its run time, carrying vast swaths of emotion in his eyes and on his shoulders. The script (from Nemes and co-writer Clara Royer) reveals little about Saul himself, what makes him who he is, his life before the war and the camps, which allows the film to funnel all of his energy into the quest at hand. This approach perhaps makes him more of a cipher than a fully fleshed out character, but his trial and his plight is universal.
It is unlikely anyone in the audience would truly want to feel like he or she is inside Auschwitz during the war. And, whether it’s Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful or countless other Holocaust dramas, the inner workings of concentration camps have certainly been highlighted before. None of them, though, have felt as visceral and in the moment as Son of Saul. With the camera never providing respite, pursuing Saul as doggedly as his Nazi jailers, squeezing him in with its mightily effective choice of a more restrictive aspect ratio, the film becomes an exercise in tension without release. It’s easy to understand why Son of Saul has received the plaudits it has; this is a film of undeniable quality and ingenuity, offering an uncompromising perspective that may not be the easiest to sit through (it begins, after all, with a horrifying sequence just outside a gas chamber), but rewards its audience with a tale of what it takes to find grace in even the most hellish of situations. Nemes tells the story of one man, but in that one man he finds a reflection of us all, the indomitability of human spirit.