Lazlo Nemes’s directorial debut is a brutal and spellbinding look into a day in the life of an Auschwitz Sonderkommando.
The best horror movies can terrorize audiences with sound and offscreen action. The best directors don’t need to show you gratuitous violence. The evil lurking offscreen heightens your suspense and leaves room for the darkest parts of the imagination. Lazslo Nemes, in his directorial debut Son of Saul, utilizes these techniques, claustrophobic cinematography, and superb acting to deliver one of the truest horror movies to date.
Part of what amplifies this horror is the depiction of a real place and time: the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. The film’s protagonist is Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working with the sonderkommando. He is a prisoner tasked with assisting in the corralling and clean-up of fellow Jews condemned to the gas chambers. The unenviable position buys him time, but is far from salvation. Saul is completely stripped of his humanity. He is reduced to animalistic and mechanical action.
Saul stoically goes from one gruesome task to the next, devoid of any emotion other than urgency. In the midst of this, Saul discovers the body of a boy he believes is his son. He makes it his mission to provide the boy with a proper Jewish burial. It’s Saul’s last hope for redemption, but hounding SS guards and plotting conspirators, who are looking to escape, hinder him at every turn.
Geza Rohrig’s performance lends itself to the anxious atmosphere of the film, but the cinematography makes you feel like you cannot escape it. The camera focuses squarely on Saul’s shoulders and back. It follows on his heels in long and uncut shots, creating a sense of claustrophobia and immersion. The genius of this choice is that it makes the rest of the frame out of focus. The more incomprehensible horrors are on the periphery or offscreen entirely. You only hear the gunshots of mass executions and the panic of helpless victims thrown into the gas chambers. The viewer’s mind fills in what isn’t there with cerebral imagery. The bodies Saul drags out and stacks are out-of-focus or not entirely in-frame. When there is a closeup of Saul, the chaos is emphasized by the empty and desperate eyes of a man surviving moment to moment.
The chaotic pacing of the film emphasizes Saul’s herculean quest to bury his son. You’re transfixed, but it’s never confirmed who the boy really is. In fact, other characters question Saul’s claim. The look in their eyes suggests they believe he has cracked. It seems to be an absurd mission, but given the circumstances, each action of every character seems absurd. Death lurks around every corner. Why be apprehensive about Saul’s pursuit to bury this nameless boy when it’s impossible to wrap your head around the atrocities already occurring? Saul brazenly acts to regain any remaining humanity stolen by his participation in the Final Solution.
The power of this film does not only lie in its cinematography or Geza Rohrig’s performance. It also lies in the audience’s knowledge of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The horrors faced by real people, every day, are too immense to capture. However, Lazlo Nemes’s microscopic story is a powerful example of how film can come close. Son of Saul is an experience that confounds the mind and soul, making your body feel like the densest point in a black hole. You are left, in the end, with a question many victims from this fraction in history must have asked: “And now what?”