Was the Holocaust the worst thing that humanity has ever allowed to happen? I wish that were the case but in the grand scheme of human endeavors the Holocaust might not have been the exception that we like to think it is. Man’s inhumanity towards man has in fact been a constant though human history, but what makes the Holocaust so exceptional is just how pointless it was. When the perpetrators of the Spanish inquisition tortured and murdered people they at least did it out of some deluded notion that they were saving their victim’s souls and when the native populations were massacred across the Americas that murder at least advanced someone’s self-interest if nothing else, but the Holocaust by seemed to be entirely the result of pointless hatred. If there’s any good that’s come out of the Holocaust it’s that it is one of the few calamities in history that has been allowed to be told from the perspective of the victims rather than the oppressors. It’s also worth noting that unlike most of the human tragedies that came before it, the Holocaust happened after the invention of cinema and pretty much since Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog filmmakers have been trying to find the right way to use their art in order to express what the Holocaust was and what it said about the human condition. It’s become a more common subject in recent year’s but it remains an extremely sensitive subject that filmmakers cannot take on lightly.
The latest film to make a statement about the Holocaust is from a young Hungarian director named László Nemes. Unlike films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, which were set on the periphery of the Holocaust and focused on characters who managed to avoid the camps, Son of Saul is set in Aushwitz and focuses on a man who bore witness to the worst of what went on there. Saul (Géza Röhrig) was a member of the Sonderkommando, who were Jews that the Nazis essentially made into trustees at the camp. These Sonderkommandos were essentially slaves who were forced by the Nazis to help corral other Jews into the gas chambers and then clean up afterwards before later becoming victims themselves. As the film begins Saul is performing this grim duty when he encounters among the slain a child who he believes to be his lost son. The rest of the film consists of Saul desperately trying to find a way to give this child a proper burial according to Jewish tradition rather than allow him to be incinerated.
This actually isn’t the first movie to focus on the Sonderkommando unit at Aushwitz. The film actually covers some of the same historical events and even characters as Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film The Grey Zone, but depicts it in a completely different way. That earlier film was certainly a tough unflinching movie, but it was ultimately a fairly conventionally made retelling of history. The camerawork was ordinary (it was based on a stage play, which is telling), its cast was made up of recognizable American film actors like David Arquette and Steve Buscemi and its treatment of the horrors of Aushwitz took the form of a sort of clinically unflinching staredown. Son of Saul is by contrast much more expressionistic but also far from unflinching. The film follows Saul 100% of the time and when I say it follows him I mean that almost literally. The camera is almost always over Saul’s shoulder or behind his back or generally within a few feet of his person, a bit like what Dardenne Brothers did with their film Rosetta. This gives the audience a close bond with the protagonist while also heightening his desperation and give you a better idea of what it meant to live these atrocities rather than merely witness them. Additionally, this choice allows Nemes to look away from some of the worst of what happened at Aushwitz when appropriate. A lot of the really nasty stuff is just out of frame or out of focus, not in a way that feels gimmicky or timid, but in a way that feels both organic and sensitive.
Son of Saul is different from most movies. There is a story to it, but that’s not really the main point of the main objective. Instead this is a film that operates more as a piece of visual art rather than narrative art. “It looks like a painting in motion” is a compliment that is often extended to movies that look particularly beautiful, and this isn’t a movie that I would call “beautiful” exactly given the subject matter, but there is something painting-like in the way that the film is primarily trying to make a visual statement about something and to some extent leave it up to the viewer to draw conclusions. At the very least it’s very different from movies like Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful both in form and intent. This is not a movie that wants its audience to cry and it doesn’t exist to teach history to the ignorant. This is decidedly not going to be a movie that everyone is going to want to experience, but it’s taking the cinema to some important places and doing some amazing things. I have no idea how László Nemes plans to follow this up.
**** out of Four