This isn’t your typical Holocaust film.
SON OF SAUL (László Nemes). Subtitled. 107 minutes. Opens December 25. For venues and times, see movies.nowtoronto.com. Rating: NNNN
Scenes of the horrors of Auschwitz in László Nemes’s Son Of Saul make the lager in Schindler’s List look like a summer camp. Ingeniously, he accomplishes this while keeping almost all the brutality off camera.
Instead, Nemes keeps our gaze on the face of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando tasked with ushering prisoners into the gas chambers, removing the bodies and then burning them. When Saul finds the body of someone he claims is his son, he single-mindedly sets out to bury him, risking his life and the success of the prisoners’ fomenting rebellion.
Never has a film so vividly portrayed the Holocaust, even though cinematographer Mátyás Erdely almost always focuses on Röhrig’s face, so you have to look closely behind him to see any other activity: prisoners rifling through victims’ clothing or dragging corpses in the background.
All the horror is suggested by the sound, the thunk of the gas chamber door closing, the guards barking orders, the victims screaming and throughout the film, the hushed voice-over of conversations among the prisoners in German, Yiddish and Hungarian (without subtitles, to reflect the chaos).
But this is not a movie designed only to generate outrage at the Nazi carnage. Clara Royer and Nemes’s script shows deep insight into the machinations and struggles among the Sonderkommandos, and Saul goes through a compelling transformation from automaton who seems not to hear his victims’ cries to a man with a sense of purpose. Son Of Saul is a deep meditation on one man’s resolve to expiate his guilt.
As a first feature, this is a spectacular achievement.
Given that Son Of Saul has snagged a Golden Globe foreign film nomination, you can count on Oscar calling on this entry from Hungary in the same category. It’s a Holocaust film, a genre Hollywood often recognizes, and one that’s entirely original in style. Some critics are making the case for Géza Röhrig in the best actor category, but that’s a long shot.