There have been hundreds of major films about the Holocaust produced in every corner of the globe over the last 70 years, all appearing with increasing frequency from one decade to the next. The last two years have brought a pair of acclaimed films from Europe — Ida and Phoenix — that derive high art from the subject by focusing on its aftermath. Despite all these efforts, the enormity of the Holocaust and its unimaginable horrors have remained impervious to full cinematic interpretation. The medium of film — for all its strengths and glories — always falls short when addressing that which can never be grasped or explained.
Son of Saul, the debut feature from Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, aims to break through that invisible barrier by stripping away the rules that typically underlie narrative movies. Given Nemes’ radical methods and the results they yield, Son of Saul can only be described as an experimental film — and a uniquely successful one by any measure. Its accolades include the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, more than a dozen Best Foreign Language Film awards from American critics’ associations and an Oscar nomination in that category. But Son of Saul exists in a cinematic world of its own device, making comparisons to the year’s many great international films superfluous.
The film takes us deep inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. It follows a day-and-a-half in the life of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando — work units of imprisoned Jews whose presence reassures new arrivals even as they guide them to their deaths, clean the gas chambers immediately after each mass murder (which totaled an estimated 1.1 million people at Auschwitz alone), burn the corpses and even dispose of the ashes. The Sonderkommando perform their duties for four months before being killed and have no choice about their roles in the camp.
After seeing a teenage boy briefly survive the gas, Auslander believes him to be his son and spends the entire film searching the camp for a rabbi who can say Kaddish and help with a proper and clandestine burial. That mission allows Auslander to manufacture meaning in a place where all sense of purpose has been systematically destroyed. He struggles with his ultimately pointless task even as his fellow Sonderkommando prepare for a secret armed rebellion, a real-life event that occurred at Auschwitz in 1944. But there are no heroes in Son of Saul.
Nemes keeps his in camera in tight close-up and sharp focus on his central character throughout the film’s 107-minute running time, with only a few respites for very brief scenes that further the storyline. The chaotic horrors of Auschwitz swirl around Auslander in various states of blur on the edges of an almost square image, with much information communicated through dense and detailed sound design. The idea was to remove all cinematic artifice — including any notion of visual style — leaving us with nothing but the bare bones of Auslander’s experience.
The results are claustrophobic, disorienting and uniquely disturbing, but the film comes closer to capturing the realities endured by victims of the Holocaust than anything that has come before. Nemes lost much of his family at Auschwitz, which helps mitigate the philosophical quandary of crafting experimental art from the horrors that occurred there. No catharsis is possible for filmmaker or audience, but that is central to the idea of making Son of Saul.
Son of Saul is scheduled to begin an exclusive run next Friday, Feb. 26, at The Theatres at Canal Place.