How do you film the Holocaust? It is a question that has troubled many filmmakers over the past 70 years and has often sewn discord among them, from Jacques Rivette's criticism of the tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo to Claude Lanzmann's disdain for Schindler's List: “I fail to see how actors could convey deported people who had suffered months, years of agony, misery, humiliation and who died for fear,” Lanzmann wrote of Spielberg's film. How does a filmmaker depict the horrors of the camps without softening, reducing and trivialising them? Lanzmann believed that the way he dealt with the subject in Shoah, using interviews with survivors and no archive footage from the camps, was the only ethical approach, and yet he has come out in favour of Son of Saul, the feature debut from Hungarian director László Nemes.
Son of Saul opens with a blurred image, in which figures slowly take shape. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) steps into the centre of the 4:3 frame, and that is pretty much how the rest of the film unfolds, with Saul being a fixed point around which nightmarish images are glimpsed and obscured. This Hungarian-born Jew is a sonderkommando in Auschwitz, a position that means he assists in the preparation of fellow prisoners for the gas chambers and then cleans up afterwards, disposing of the bodies and retrieving whatever valuables they may have been concealing in their clothes. This first sequence of the film is in itself a stunning achievement, placing us inside a shockingly convincing recreation of the gas chambers and forcing us to go through the motions along with Saul. As the camera follows him from a close distance – often focusing on the big red X on the back of his uniform – we only briefly catch sight of terrified prisoners undressing and being shepherded through to their deaths, and then we only see shapes of motionless flesh as the bodies are dragged across the room, piled up and transported to the ovens. But what we see is more than enough, especially when those images are combined with the astonishingly evocative and immersive sound mix that surrounds us with the piercing noise of fear, confusion, hatred and death. As the screams and the banging on the door of the gas chamber echoes around the room, Saul stares blankly at the floor.
Röhrig's impassive lead performance suggests that the only way a person could get through this experience is to keep his head down and try to block out the pain, but the emotional toll is still evident in his haggard features and dark eyes. In making Saul a sonderkommando, Nemes and co-screenwriter Clara Royer have a lead character who has a greater license to roam than the average prisoner, and as such we see the functions of the camp from multiple perspectives. We see bodies being loaded into the furnaces, we see a thriving black market, we see a prisoner uprising being plotted, we see Jews being shot and collapsing into a pit, we even see the women's camp – we see, we hear, we experience. It's easy to call Son of Saul a contrived and neatly constructed film but it is clearly a means to an end, with the filmmakers using Saul's roaming to create as rounded and fully detailed a portrait of the camps as possible.
Question marks will also be raised over the central thrust of the plot, with Saul discovering a young boy among the dead bodies retrieved from the gas chamber and insisting that he must have a proper Jewish burial. How can we get behind a protagonist who puts so many lives at risk for the sake of one dead child? How can we believe in the lengths he goes to in his attempt to secure the services of a Rabbi? You can either buy into this or not, but I found it very easy to believe that this man was desperately trying to hold on to his humanity by doing the one decent thing he can do, the one thing in this world of chaos that he may be able to exert some control over. The ambiguity over whether this really is Saul's child or if he has lost his senses adds to the sense that this is something he simply must do and that he is being driven by an overwhelming moral urgency that defies all other considerations. The whole narrative trajectory plays as a variation on the line, “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Son of Saul, like any cinematic depiction of the Holocaust, will draw praise and criticism from all quarters and there is ultimately no clear answer to the the rights and wrongs of portraying this subject on screen. What is beyond dispute is that this is the work of a filmmaker in full command of the story he wants to tell and somebody who has utilised all of the tools at his disposal to create a unique and uncompromising work of art. It feels like he is being driven by the same kind of moral purpose that is pushing Saul onwards, and the need to document this part of history actually forms part of his film, with one of Saul's fellow prisoner's using a hidden camera to capture the atrocities being committed behind the barbed wire, to make the world see. Son of Saul makes us see it, hear it and feel it, and we won't easily forget it.