You will never shake this film off, ever, and that is a powerful and enriching thing.
“Son of Saul” is one of the best and most original and most devastatingly effective films ever made about the Holocaust. It is an unblinking, suffocating, claustrophobic work about the unspeakable but undeniable atrocities committed by human beings against one another — and the horrific moral choices some prisoners made in order to extend their own lives.
The Hungarian director László Nemes shoots in unbroken takes and employs a squared-off aspect ratio and tight shots to heighten the intensity and the visceral feeling, putting us right there in the moment
Nemes focuses his lens on one man: Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who assisted the Nazis in the extermination of their brothers and sisters in captivity. In exchange for their labors, the Sonderkommandos bought a few more weeks or months — time they could use to plot an escape or a revolt.
The year is 1944. The concentration/extermination camp is Auschwitz, specifically Birkenau, the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps in the Auschwitz complex.
With a blood-red X painted across his back, Saul keeps his head down and tries to maintain a consistently stoic expression as he goes about his daily tasks, which include guiding his fellow Jews into what they believe are showers for delousing, but in fact are cyanide chambers. After the dead are removed, Saul scrubs the chambers in anticipation of the next group of victims.
“Son of Saul” makes great use of sound, as we pick up snippets of whispered conversation among the prisoners, and the harsh commands of the German guards. As Saul navigates his way through a period of roughly a day and a half, we often catch peripheral images of dead bodies, or a fleeting close-up of a prisoner who knows he’s about to die.
The war is coming to a close, which only serves to heighten the insanity in the camp. One gets the sense the German know they are doomed to defeat, but rather than summon some long-abandoned vestige of humanity, they’re accelerating the extermination process. It’s an assembly line of slaughter, more terrifying than anything you’ll ever see in any horror film.
Saul’s nearly robotic way of insulating himself from his hellish existence is shattered when he sees a concentration camp doctor literally taking the last breaths from a boy who had somehow survived the gas chamber.
This boy may or may not be Saul’s son. Ordered to take the boy’s body to be burned, Saul instead secrets the body away and embarks on a quest to find a rabbi in the camp who can give the boy a proper burial.
“Son of Saul” becomes a thriller of sorts, as Saul risks his life and moves with great urgency and desperation through the maze-like structure of the concentration camp, where fresh horrors lurk around every corner. The cinematography is breathtaking, capturing the evil insanity of Auschwitz in a way few films, dramatic or documentary, ever have.
Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes and nominated (and favored to win) best foreign language film at the Oscars, “Son of Saul” is lasting work of art — difficult to watch, impossible to forget.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by László Nemes and written by Nemes and Clara Royer. In Hungarian and Yiddish with English subtitles. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.