by Ken Bakely
There’s a very long and thin tightrope that László Nemes’ Son of Saul has to walk. It takes an ostensibly minimalist approach to its setting – which just happens to be Auschwitz – and places it in Academy-ratio medium-length takes, characterized in extreme close-ups and shallow focus. Effectively, the genocidal horrors happening around the film’s characters are reduced to fuzzy background imagery, pulling focus to their actions at the center but also threatening to minimize what’s happening around them. Nemes is undoubtedly aware of his precarious approach, however, and takes specific care to compartmentalize the morality of his screenplay, perhaps to a fault though, as events are perceived as black-or-white, decisions which benefit one party at the direct expense of the other. But the visceral effect of the film’s approach and dramatic buildup helps offset the icky feelings of any oversimplification, making Nemes’ debut feature an imperfect-but-daring proposition with regard to depictions of the Holocaust.
The Sonderkommando were work units in concentration camps comprised of prisoners. They were given the unpleasant tasks, largely based upon the removal and disposal of corpses. Invariably, they would be executed after a few months. The only way to survive was to escape. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, and is well aware of what he must do, no matter the odds. But countless weeks of being constantly surrounded with mass murder at the constant threat of joining the victims has taken a toll on his psyche, and after witnessing the slow, agonizing death a young boy, Saul takes custody of the body and begins a frantic mission to give him a proper Jewish burial. There must be a shred of humanity left to give, he figures. Something to restore feeling to the numbness which has overtaken him. There’s seemingly no length Saul won’t go to in order to fulfill his mission, a single-mindedness which could prove to be a dangerous prospect in this wretched environment he’s surrounded by, where one foot out of line is synonymous with fatal error.
There are scenes in Son of Saul which certainly play with staggering efficiency – a final twenty minutes, framed in exterior shots with natural lighting, places the tranquility of nature against a horrifying context. It is in these moments where Nemes is truly in his element as a filmmaker, as his cinematographical decisions pay off. The film takes a different approach to its subject matter. Whereas productions like Schindler’s List and Come and See (the latter of which is visually referenced in the last shot of this movie) style themselves as large-scale tragic operas, pulling back and exposing the wide-ranging ramifications of the war, Nemes decides to stick with one sub-group of the Auschwitz prisoners. The aforementioned shallow-focus shots deny the viewers full images of the systematic murder within. Every shot is stacked with this layout in mind – the foreground is always intact and quiet, the background ceaselessly busy and noisy.
A potentially poor decision is made by Nemes in making Saul singularly compelled to carry out the burial, with little other development assigned to the character throughout the 107 minute film. It minimizes range, and a clumsier handling of this approach would have shut the historical significance of its setting out entirely. But looking at Röhrig, his wearied, wethered expression clamboring for one last gasp of normalcy, assures us as viewers that the picture is still aware of the weight of its atmosphere. It’s still an active question on whether or not Nemes’ choice of claustrophobic, constrained visual choices pan out to a fully realized film, but as an active experiment, a different way of looking at Holocaust cinema whilst still remaining solemn and respectful of the events it chooses to dramatize, Son of Saul manages to obtain a proclivity for the selection of its agency.