A Holocaust drama that transpires over the course of a 24-hour span, Son of Saul, the extraordinary first film by Hungarian director László Nemes, is set in the final months of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, when the encroaching Soviet army prompted the Nazis to begin escalating the execution of its prisoners and a group of Sonderkommandos — Jews forced to assist in the death camp work — plot a revolt. More specifically, it’s set squarely on the shoulders of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Sonderkammando whose stone-faced expression suggests he’s had to push his sense of moral revulsion deep inside himself in order to stay alive. And so he goes about the awful business of escorting prisoners into what they’re told are decontamination chambers, rifling through their belongs for valuables, and removing the bodies after the gas kills them, all of it under threat of his own execution by the soldiers that order him around and bark insults at him. He has no choice, really. His captors have taken that away from him along with the rest. When a boy with whom he has a connection only revealed later — though the title supplies an answer — survives the gas chamber only to be put to death a few minutes later, all he can do is watch. When told to take the body to an examination room for an autopsy, he has no choice but to comply. Unless, that is, he doesn’t.
What’s the proper way to depict what it might have been like to experience Hell on Earth? It’s a question raised by Son of Saul, and one that Nemes answers with a daring stylistic choice. To show too much — to depict the humiliation and execution of prisoners in graphic detail — is to risk exploitation. To show too little — to cut away from the horror — is to risk giving the camps a grim mystique they don’t deserve. Nemes’ solution is to stay close to Saul, rarely cutting away from what he sees but using shallow focus to suggest opaquely what Saul sees. It’s a powerful choice. We get a strong sense of what Saul is witness to while only occasionally seeing it clearly ourselves as the camera swoops along through one long take after another. The mind fills in whatever awful blanks remain.
That’s far from the only question at work in Son of Saul, which follows Saul as he tries to live up to his moral obligations in spite of his impossible situation. Stirred by the boy’s death, Saul takes desperate measures to ensure he’s treated with kindness after death that he never received in life. This involves absconding with the body, arranging for a proper burial, and securing a rabbi to recite the Kaddish — none of them easy tasks, particularly as a sense of chaos starts to overtake the camp, the uprising becomes imminent, and the possibility that this task will mean his own death becomes more pronounced. Yet as the obstacles mount, his sense of duty grows that much stronger. He’s going to choose to do one right thing, even if it means his end.
It’s a depiction of morality as an act of defiance against an uncaring system that’s made all the more powerful by Röhrig’s performance, which says more with a forceful brow and an unblinking stare than most actors can convey with dialogue. His intensity works in grim harmony with Röhrig’s immersive approach. For all the choreography that must have been involved with this movie, Nemes sustains the illusion of capturing the world of the camp with its hierarchy, its subsections, its behind-the-scenes transactions, its plots, its awful compromises, and its ever-present specter of death. Watching Son of Saul is a grueling, clarifying experience. Its blurry images suggest we’ll never be able to see fully the horrors of the recent past, but through films like this we can see enough to remind us what happened, and that it happened to people trying to hold onto their better selves while being stripped of their humanity. And, in a film year filled with memorable endings, Son of Saul ends with one of the most memorable: an image of hope, but a fragile one that’s endangered from the moment of its inception. In this world, it’s the only kind of hope that makes sense.