Both narrative and visual focus make up some of the more base elements of filmmaking, but rarely do they get the opportunity to commingle so elegantly as they do under the capable leadership of László Nemes in Son of Saul. Despite the events taking place over seven decades ago, and having been documented in countless inventive and non-fictional ways, Nemes uses focus to find a fresh perspective within the horrors of the Holocaust, and to tell the story of a man forced to compartmentalize his daily routine and the searing pain in his soul. Shot from a perspective that oscillates between point-of-view and third-person, Son of Saul attaches itself to one voice among thousands — all screaming into the void, begging to be delivered from the gruesome horrors of their collective hell.
Forced (quite literally) at gunpoint to aid in the disposal of their own people, Sonderkommandos assisted Germans in the herding of Jews into gas chambers, and with the subsequent cremations of the “pieces” (the dehumanizing term given to bodies of recently-dead prisoners). A precarious juggling of the inborn instincts of self-preservation, morality and outright horror, these inmates have been rightfully forgiven by history, but they most likely died unable to forgive themselves for their hand in the atrocities they begrudgingly witnessed.
Veteran Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer silently helps new arrivals undress to ready themselves for a “shower” and meal. German guards calm the masses with promises of warm soup and tea, yet the quiet Sondercommandos know their fate (as the keepers of many concentration camp secrets, they were “replaced” after a career of around three months). When the doors of the shower (gas chamber) lock, they set to work clearing numbered pegs of clothes and shoes. No one will be back to claim these personal effects. Left to do its work, the gas renders hundreds of terrified prisoners lifeless in a matter of minutes — a mess that needs to be quickly cleared away and reset for the afternoon’s subsequent exterminations. Finding a sole survivor (until the resident doctor arrives) amongst the human disarray, Saul (an incredible Géza Röhrig) becomes convinced that the boy is his son, and that the only way to personal salvation is through providing him with a proper burial performed by a Rabbi.
Shooting his film in 1.37:1, Nemes defines life inside the barriers of the concentration camp as narrowly as possible. The box on screen represents the inescapable confines these half-men have been trapped inside — with a backdrop of horror, the blackness at the edge of their “world” is the unfathomable possibility of survival. Rarely pulling these surroundings into focus, Nemes and his photographer, Mátyás Erdély, have no need to shock their audience with depictions of the height of modern barbarity; they trust that we have been forewarned as to what went on inside these camps. We know of gas chambers, crematoriums and mass graves, but by keeping his lead actor in such shallow focus, the foggy background becomes little more than a painful suggestion at the realities of the Final Solution.
In this way, the director makes Son of Saul the story of a man finding redemption amongst the horrors of his life, and one that connects with an audience rather than frightening them into agreement. Nemes and his team operate under the rational assumption that the world universally detests the Nazis, so he does not need to waste time condemning their actions. Relying on his audience’s humanity, Nemes is able to say more about Saul’s surroundings than any living non-survivor ever could. Simply because he is placed within the confines of this hellish reality, Saul becomes a morally ambiguous figure. The possibility that he could be good or bad lends a sense of humanity that so many others in Holocaust narratives tend to lack. Neither saint nor sinner, his actions need only be justified internally to obtain meaning — history’s permission and that of his fellow Kommandos become white noise alongside the screams of the condemned and the bellowing guards’ uncaring commands.
A concentration camp story that sets itself apart, Son of Saul sidelines the horrors of the Holocaust in favor of a much more personal brand of disgust. Grappling with themes of self-preservation and mental stability amongst abject barbarity, Son of Saul packs an emotional punch all its own, while seeking to convey the essence of an individual living in abhorrent chaos.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.