László Nemes’s debut film Son of Saul is quite simply an astonishing and profoundly disturbing piece of work. Winner of the 2016 Oscar for Foreign Language Film and the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2015 it is the best and most important film released in the UK so far this year. By no means an easy watch, it is the incredibly disquieting story of a day and a half in the life of Saul (Géza Röhrig, brilliant), a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz.
The story of the Sonderkommandos in itself is grimly and disturbingly fascinating. They were forced labour work sections, made up of the mostly Jewish prisoners who under the threat of execution were tasked with disposing the bodies and belongings of those murdered in the gas chambers. Kept in separate living quarters, the Sonderkommandos were regularly executed and replaced. Murdered after the delay their forced activities had allowed. It is horrifying to even think about. The mechanised, industrialised murder on scale that required slave labour working in shifts to drag the naked bodies from the ovens and pile the corpses to be burnt. To remove the clothes innocently placed on pegs by those unknowingly going to their deaths, those who had been ferried and guided to their end. To scrub the floors of evidence. To shovel the ashes into the river. The evil of the world being processed all around.
Son of Saul depicts this horror unflinchingly, by keeping the figure of Saul in the centre of frame throughout the entire film. By sharply focusing in close-up on his doleful face, sapped by circumstance of any reaction to the surroundings, everything that is happening around him is mostly out of focus. We see the shapes of the bodies being piled up, dragged from the ovens, people being shot, shoved and treated like animals. The tight depth of focus in Mátyás Erdély’s incredible cinematography means the nightmare happens in almost peripheral vision, which in many ways makes the experience even worse – it normalises it. It’s just happening. Combined with the incredible sound design, the simple banality of the barbarism becomes overwhelming. You hear things happening all around, and see just a tiny amount.
The movie deals with the knowledge Sonderkommandos sometimes found the naked bodies of members of their own families amongst the piles of corpses, and couldn’t react if they wanted to stay alive. The verisimilitude of the film is astonishing – at one point one of the Sonderkommandos is seen taking surreptitious photographs of the hell surrounding him, to try and tell the world outside. The framing is specific, and after seeing the film I learned that this moment accurately depicted some real photographs.
That discovery floored me.
Production design and performances are uniformly excellent. The world of Auschwitz has been brought to terrifying life.
Son of Saul is a brilliant, brilliant, unsettling and important piece of work. It depicts the capacity of humanity with a rare and disturbing honesty, showing the utterly impossible and hideous choices forced upon those victims of the holocaust. It inevitably makes the audience wonder how they would cope, and in doing so honours the history and victims by making it live in the minds of the people watching. This is not an exploitative movie, it’s one which makes you think, one which ultimately leaves you with the sense that the kind of brutality which still exists in living memory, must never be allowed to flourish again.
The film is a visceral masterpiece. Moving and horrifying in equal measure, Son of Saul is out in cinemas and on-demand on Friday 29th April, and is an absolute must see.