In some ways, Son of Saul is similar to The Revenant. Son of Saul’s director and co-writer, László Nemes, is more concerned with how he wants to tell his story than with the nuts and bolts of the story being told. The difference is that Nemes, who has never made a feature film before now, brings far more humanity to his conceit than Alejandro G. Iñárritu managed in his gorgeous-but-clinical exercise.
Of course, the first thing Nemes has going for him is his subject material, which just intrinsically carries considerable emotional punch. During the Holocaust, the kapos were concentration camp prisoners the Germans pressed into service as administrative functionaries. Their jobs were to oversee labor and to maintain the camp’s internal workings. Forced on threat of death to oversee the extermination of their fellow Jews, they were often ultimately killed themselves for their troubles.
Nemes and his co-writer, Clara Royer, focus on one kapo, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), in the worst of possible places: Auschwitz. Much of Saul’s daily routine involves shepherding new arrivals into the gas chambers in an orderly fashion, collecting their clothes and belongings, keeping the blast furnaces going, incinerating the bodies, and the disposing of the ashes.
The central creative breakthrough of Son of Saul is how Nemes films all this. Whether it’s observing his face, glancing past him, or jogging along behind Saul and watching over his shoulder, the camera is never more than a few feet away from the protagonist. There are cuts in the film, but they are sparse. It’s composed of long, hand-held takes that communicate the weird combination of bureaucratic drudgery and jittery, stomach-churning terror that makes up the kapos’ daily life. Sometimes the camera just stops for long stretches and observes Saul’s repetitive labor: pushing a cart full of bodies, shoveling coal into the furnaces, or dumping ashes in the river.
To some extent, the conceit has a merciful affect: In the worst moments, the camera stays on Saul himself. Everything else occurs slightly unfocused at the edges of the frame, giving us enough information to know what’s going on, but not the intricate details.
But this approach forces the audience to rely more on its hearing, and Son of Saul’s remarkable sound design exploits that opportunity to the utmost, and the screams, blasts of fire, grinding metal doors, hissing pipes, and more tell our ears what our eyes cannot see. With a color palette of sickly greens, washed-out browns, and terrifying bursts of fiery orange by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, the combined affect is a nightmarish factory-scape of implacable mechanistic death, perversely set alongside the most mundane and boring grunt work.
As Saul, Röhrig takes this all in with a clear-eyed solemnity, his reaction all the more moving for its non-reaction. Hollow-cheeked and shabbily dressed, Saul and the other kapos speak in public in short, terse sentences that reduce grammar to its must primitive. Their survival relies on providing their captors – capricious bullies who rocket from mocking magnanimity to murderous rage – as little emotional information as possible. Only when they are away from the Germans do Saul and the other kapos return to something like normalcy, like asking whether the guards will ultimately kill them, too, or plotting some form of revolt. Röhrig plays this ferocious internalization of emotion with subtlety, communicating with the physicality of his expression and his hunched shoulders, which the camera is never far from.
The terrible poignancy of the kapos’ situation is never addressed head on, but it’s a churning subtext under the film. After a group of Jews is killed in the gas chambers, one small boy survives, and Saul is able to drag him out of a pile of bodies before a German doctor drags the boy into the next room and suffocates him. Overwhelmed by the event, Saul becomes determined to find a rabbi somewhere in the camp so he can give the boy a proper Jewish burial. Thanks to his status, Saul can plausible move about the camp unmolested. So he tracks down clues and rumors, providing the audience a tour of sorts of Auschwitz’s various environs and day-to-day workings. Some of the other kapos like Abraham (Levente Molnár) are puzzled but sympathetic to Saul’s quest, while others angrily denounce him for not focusing on the rebellion effort. One beaten-down doctor (Sándor Zsótér) takes pity on Saul’s plight and helps him hide the body at a critical juncture.
The exact nature of Saul’s relationship to the boy is never finalized. Both the title and Saul himself refer to the boy as his son, but this point teeters in the grey zone between metaphor and the literalism. One almost wordless encounter with a female Jewish prisoner hints at unseen emotional depths and a potentially crushing backstory.
Ultimately, Son of Saul is a bare bones narrative, with minimal dialogue, a simple plot, and no serious character relationships to speak of. It is Saul’s effort, nothing more: a stubborn, defiant act of human decency and meaning in one of the closest places we’ve ever had to hell on earth. Saul’s actions are rendered all the more moving by their complete disregard for the capricious and all-encompassing threat of death in the camp, and the complete powerlessness of Saul and his fellows before it.
The film is more an experience than entertainment, and more technique than story. But it has weight and depth, buried down deep, and it never strays from its relentless commitment.