"Son of Saul" doesn't just get under your skin — it goes straight to the bloodstream. There, it churns and festers as you try to make sense out of the senseless horror of the Holocaust and the plight of the Sonderkommando — Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis with the genocide.
This isn't a movie that's interested in the big picture, redemption or reflection, though. Understanding is not in its vocabulary. This is inhuman cinema of desperation.
It is disturbing. It is immediate. It is haunting. And it's something that few will ever want to see more than once.
Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes has created what feels like a new cinematic language to tell this hyper-focused story of a Sonderkommando, Saul (Géza Röhrig) across two days at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in October 1944.
We rarely leave Saul's point of view. In this way, the film feels like one long tracking shot. The camera watches him from the front and follows him from behind — we grow accustomed to recognizing him from the blood red X messily painted on his back. Things go in and out of focus regularly — possibly as Saul comprehends them. He helps usher the prisoners into the gas chambers. We hear their screams, but we see his face, not theirs. He scrubs the bloody floors clean when it's over.
Everything is loud, harried and chaotic, but somehow methodical, too. The guards scream "work!" "work!" and the Sonderkommando oblige, whether it's stripping off the prisoners' clothes, offering false reassurances on the way to their deaths, or shoveling their ashes into a lake.
The Sonderkommando are planning a rebellion of some sorts — doing what they can to document the atrocities, which the Nazis take care to obfuscate as best they can, and coordinating with a contact at a women's work camp. There's a rumor spreading that there's a list being made of Sonderkommando to exterminate, too.
But these are just the background conditions to Saul's story.
Early on, Saul spots a boy dying on a slab surrounded by Nazi doctors. After he breathes his final breath, they order an autopsy. This dead boy becomes Saul's obsession as he commits himself to finding a Rabbi to say the Kaddish and arrange a proper burial.
Saul is a shell of a man, and the self-assigned objective gives him purpose outside of the barbaric tasks he's forced to commit. But whether his quest to give this boy some final respect is one of sincerity, a selfish, desperate attempt to regain some humanity or a manifestation of his madness is a question that only the viewer can answer. One fellow prisoner accuses him of favoring the dead at the expense of the living. It's hard to argue with that. Saul is both selfish and selfless and maybe, ultimately, he's neither.
But confusion is the only reality here. No one speaks the same language — a subtlety lost in subtitles — and order only further dissolves as the film progresses.
The filmmaking is extraordinary and somehow, mercifully, not as visually exploitative as it could have been. Nemes, in his first feature, is a bold, experimental voice with a clear vision — a filmmaker to watch and study for years to come.
Ultimately, the nebulous morality of everyone here makes "Son of Saul" a fascinating investigation, but in some ways an unsatisfying one, too. The restraint could be admirable, but it could also be dangerous. Is the one creating a narrative of this horror responsible for neatly presenting a conclusion to the audience?
Not making a statement is perhaps the most provocative thing Nemes could have done. "Son of Saul" doesn't tell, it shows, and it places the gnawing burden on the rest of us.
What: "Son of Saul." Directed by László Nemes. A Sony Pictures Classics release
Stars (out of four): •
With: Géza Röhrig, Christian Harting, Urs Rechn, Levente Molnár
MPAA rating: R (restricted — under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for "disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity"
Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes
Playing at: Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)