CANNES – The competition slate of the Cannes Film Festival is usually packed with established cinematic auteurs or former jury prize winners. When a first-time director is selected to be a part of such esteemed company, it usually means they have created a work that is truly remarkable. In terms of filmmaking prowess, “remarkable” may not do Laszlo Nemes' holocaust drama “Son of Saul” justice.
Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp near the end of World War II, almost every frame of the film is centered on the title character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig). He is a Hungarian Jew forced to assist the Nazis as a member of the Sonderkommandos, a group of prisoners who helped the Nazis in the clean-up of the camp's gas chambers. The film begins with a group of scared new arrivals being ushered into a room where German soldiers force them to take their clothes off. They are then shuffled into a second room, the gas chamber, and the door is closed behind them. Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos are forced to stand against a door that holds in the poison, but not its victim”s screams for help. As a sequence composed for a typical dramatic film, this would be powerful enough and you have likely seen it depicted in some capacity in other movies or television programs. It's how Nemes's shoots “Saul” that makes the moment so intimately abhorrent.
Incredibly, Nemes and his cinematographer Matyas Erledy never let the camera leave its subject. Whether it's positioned immediately behind him or facing him, Saul never leaves the viewer's sight. We follow him, for instance, as he drags bodies out of the gas chamber, but while other directors would center the camera on the body being moved, Nemes makes the moment more powerful by keeping it within the periphery of the frame. Moreover, the entire film is shot in extremely long takes and on 35mm stock, an achievement in and of itself in this digital age. This combination of intimate composition, minimal cuts and shooting in the Academy aspect ratio (1:33:1 or 4:3) results in a hypnotic cinematic style rarely, if ever, seen in a full-length feature film. You often forget how long it's been since the last cut because you become lost in the unrelenting hell Saul is living in.
The monotony of Saul's existence as a Sonderkommando is shaken when a boy is found breathing while the gas chamber is being emptied. Saul immediately becomes transfixed on the boy. We watch as a doctor is called in and stops his breathing, but there is something about the child Saul can't dismiss. He volunteers to bring the body up to an examination room where he'll be autopsied. For some reason, Saul is horrified at that prospect and cannot let it happen. He begins a delicate and dangerous personal mission to figure out how to properly bury the boy. Saul's fellow prisoners dismiss his crazy talk, but they are also preoccupied with their own plans.
Although not directly stated, the movie appears to occur around or during October 1944, when Sonderkommandos undertook a long-planned revolt against their Nazi captors. Saul is swept up in this as he makes burying the boy a greater importance than his own escape. When a fellow prisoner asks early on why he cares so much about the boy's body, Saul replies, “He's my son.” This results in a puzzled look back as his fellow Sonderkommando insists he never had one.
Is Saul holding on to his humanity by believing this? Does he feel providing the boy a proper burial would atone him of the guilt he feels working in the camp? Nemes smartly leaves it for the viewers to decide, and they are not passive bystanders. Often, what is occurring on screen is as confusing for the audience as it is for Saul. Not everything is explained, nor should it be. If this journey is through the eyes of Saul we should feel his confusion, his stress and his heartache just as he would.
None of this would be possible without a powerhouse performance by Röhrig. “Son of Saul” appears to be Röhrig”s first feature film, but he takes a proposition of great responsibility that would make any veteran Hollywood star nervous and simply owns it. Saul has few lines. Most of Röhrig”s work has to be conveyed through his facial expressions or visible emotions. This is an even tougher task considering he”s on screen for almost all of the movie”s 1 hour and 47 minute running time. The film would be an almost heartless cinematic exercise if Röhrig was unable to bring Saul to life, but he does so and he does so gloriously.
It can be easy to overhype a film, especially in the context of a major film festival. Many will try to pigeonhole “Son of Saul” as the great new Holocaust drama, and make no mistake, there is tremendous importance to educating new generations of this atrocity. What is just as important is to recognize the cinematic triumph Laszlo Nemes has created. It”s so visceral and so intimate that it”s hard to put into words. But, trust you will see it soon enough.
“Son of Saul” is currently without U.S. distribution, but won”t be for long.