TIFF15: Son of Saul

László Nemes’s Son of Saul is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. It’s a crushing look at life and death in Auschwitz-Birkenau near the tail end of World War Two. Both dispassionate and overwhelmingly visceral, the camera shows us every corner of mindless evil lurking in the death camp. Not sufficing to highlight the banality of evil, Son of Saul focuses on the “machine” of evil, endlessly running, ceaselessly destroying life, corrupting everything, dehumanizing victims and executioners alike. I’ve never seen such a distillation of human evil on screen. Son of Saul is both stunning and horrifying.

It follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a sonderkommando who herds victims into the gas chamber and cleans up the room afterwards, collecting the bodies into piles and scrubbing the floor clean of bodily fluids. This monstrous work is his only means of staying alive, so he goes about it with grim stoicism. One day when the gas chamber is being cleared, he spots the body of a boy he believes is his missing son. He wants to bury his boy according to traditional Jewish rites, so he goes about searching the camp for a rabbi willing to say the funeral prayer.

Saul’s search takes him into every corner of the camp: not only the gas chambers, but also the crematoria, the warehouses, the ash piles, the oberscharführer’s office, and the fire pits. Nemes’s handheld camera follows him on this quest through the camp, focusing solely on his face. The film is shot in the Academy aspect ratio, 1.37, so there’s not much room in the frame for anything other than Saul’s head, but those peripheries are all Nemes needs to depict the unspeakable things taking place: bodies being dragged and burned, men and women being shot in the head and dumped in a burning pit. No fictional Holocaust film has ever shown such disturbing things so realistically.

The key to Son of Saul’s impact is that Nemes never allows his camera to linger on the evil things happening in the camp. He refuses to visually underline their monstrosity. Saul doesn’t flinch at these sights and neither does the camera, but neither do they pay much attention either. Saul and the camera just go about their business. This shows how these sights are normalized in the camp environment, which is far more horrifying to comprehend than if they were considered exceptional.

Choices like this allow Nemes to handily resolve most of the issues found in Holocaust films. He never makes the suffering of the victims sentimental, nor does he turn the monstrosity of the camps into spectacle. In the post film Q&A, Nemes and Röhrig explained that most Holocaust films depict an exceptional story in the camps, focusing on a survivor or an escape. Son of Saul instead focuses on the norm of the camps—itself an exception in the Holocaust subgenre. It depicts the routine of death in a place where hope is long dead.

It’ll change you.

9 out of 10

Son of Saul (2015, Hungary)

Directed by László Nemes; written by László Nemes and Clara Royer; starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Sándor Zsótér.