Son of Saul
LFF 2015: Riveting Holocaust drama that puts its director László Nemes on the map
Hungarian writer-director László Nemes courageously confronts one of modern history's darkest hours with his Cannes Grand Prix-winning debut. It documents the grisly toil of a Sonderkommando work unit at Auschwitz, where death camp prisoners were forced to dispose of corpses following mass executions. Stylistically too, it's terrifically bold as Nemes adopts an experiential rather than explanatory approach, forcing us to endure a day in the life of one such prisoner as the camera gets up in his face and stays hard on his heels.
It's set in 1944, the year of a real Sonderkommando revolt at the camp, with first-time actor Géza Röhrig standing up to his director's extraordinary scrutiny as Hungarian internee Saul. With his unit's time fast running out, Saul is pressed into assisting with an escape plan, but he becomes fixated on seeking a proper Jewish burial for a murdered boy he claims is his son.
Shooting up-close-and-personal in the 4:3 ratio, Nemes keeps things tightly focused around Saul. The work is horrifying and the environs hellish but there's little shock value here as tasks like cleaning gas chambers, transporting and burning bodies, and shovelling ashes are turned into a chilling production line, with the dead occupying the modest periphery. And, although it shows how the arrangement makes the men disturbingly complicit in the demise of their fellow prisoners, it's a sensitive, non-judgemental film which captures the dehumanising nature of the work; stripped of any semblance of his former self, Saul is an ambiguous character, sympathetic because of his visible humanity and pitiable predicament but unknowable beyond that.
Stark of subject and muddy of hue, Son of Saul sees our protagonist dragged from one grim errand to the next, with the handheld camerawork reflecting the instability and unrelenting misery of his situation. Intense and challenging it may be but it's a film that's rich with both empathy and insight.
Screening on Sat 10 and Sun 11 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 1 Apr 2016.