Laszlo Nemes’ Oscar winning Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” (‘Saul Fia’, 2015) opens with the blank face of protagonist Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). The camera is affixed to the man’s face and the background is in a shallow focus (using a 1.33:1 aspect ratio). Then over the next continuous three-and-a half-minute handheld shot, unspeakable cruelties go on in the background that offers an immersive, restricted as well as a baleful feeling. In those blurred shots, where Saul walks and herds a large group of new arrivals to the gas chamber, we don’t see much and hear very less. There’s this sense of dread, making us think that if the camera frame goes a little wider we would witness something exploitative. But, we also feel that we have been caught into the wheels of giant killing machine. By the end of the first four minutes, you would feel restless and desperately want to avert your eyes (and can’t), which means that you have entered into the consciousness of a ‘Sonderkommando’ – death camp inmates coerced to assist in the extermination process, devised by Nazis.
In the next 100 or so minutes, the uncompromising intimacy of the visuals aren’t going to ask you imagine the unimaginable; it simply makes you feel – feel the smell of charred bodies, the filth & blood on the gas chamber floor, the nauseating smell of ashes, and the grim despair from which there is no respite. Finally, “Son of Saul” causes you to feel the historical evil. An evil, whose face is obscured, an evil that doesn’t make you cry loud, but just imparts a traumatic blow to your heart & mind.
The cinematic exploration about the subject of Holocaust always veers between sensitive (“Schindler’s List”, “The Pianist”) and exploitative (“Life is Beautiful”, Jakob the Liar”). Movies dealing with holocaust tend to project a set of emotions into the story and characters. But, in “Son of Saul” emotions are strip down or lay off and Saul’s passivity is designed as a prolonged attack on once spirit and body. When you take away the emotions, the historical quotient and every other theory about holocaust, what lies at its center is that hard-to-believe impassivity of the people. Is this silent detachment best way to encapsulate tales of genocide on-screen? Doesn’t Nemes’ aesthetic calculation cross some lines to just give a ‘being-there’ experience for viewers? Do all the elements in this harrowing tale fit perfectly? It’s a question that may be answered by passage of time or good critics. Whatever the movie’s flaws are, Nemes perfectly haunts us with this question: “Is it possible to retain a sane voice & humanity in the middle of inferno?”
The subject of Sonderkommando has been previously explored in “The Grey Zone” (based on the testimony Auschwitz doctor Miklos Nyiszli. In Claude Lanzmann’s haunting documentary “Shoah”, a Sonderkommando named Abraham Bomba is interviewed for considerable time. In this film, the depiction of Sonderkommando is more chilling. Immediately after the closing of chamber doors by German officers, Sonderkommando swiftly moves through to collect the doomed Jews’ belongings. Then they drag out naked dead bodies, neatly stack them on a pile, scrub the floors to prepare it for the next set of victims, shovel lumps of coal into hungry ovens, and then travels on a truck to shovel human ashes into the water. Since the camera hugs to Saul’s face all the time, we get the claustrophobic feeling of being contained inside a box full of nightmares.
The Sonderkommando have only few days or months before being deemed useless by the German officers. An attack or an uprising is planned in the camp, whose details aren’t very clear. As Saul clears out the bodies, he finds the corpse of a boy, who could lend meaning for the movie’s title. The boy wants to search for a Rabbi and give the boy whom he believes to be his son, a proper burial. It could be an act of defiance or expiation from the persistently inhumane activities of Third Reich. Is burying the boy an act of honor, decency in the midst of maelstrom? Or is it a selfish act that propels to halt better things?
Clara Royer and Laszlo Nemes’ script is deliberately ambiguous from first till end. The power sharing, the uprising plans between different Sonderkomanndos remains hazy, which might be precisely the point, the writers wanted to make. Confronting an enormous part of history by concentrating on the day-to-day lives of people, experiencing purgatory is no easy task. By designing smaller stories to load upon a wider historical context, one needs to be clinical in the accumulation of small details and gestures. The script is impeccable in this aspect as it unflinchingly peers into the harrowing, essential element of genocide – destruction of human beings. At the same time, the clear moral trajectory of Saul isn’t staged as an afterthought. Since the Sonderkommandos makes us think about cursed object of passage between living and dead, the idea of burial bestows a powerful emotional expression. Through Saul’s characterization, Royer and Nemes also smartly avoids the idea of survival because survival seems to not worth the effort (“The rule of these places was death, and survival was often a complete accident” says Nemes in his interview to BBC). However, there is a fleeting amount of hope. This hope isn’t pertained with the physical escape from the hellish camp, but that of finding a spiritual escape or a hope to find sane, godly inner voice.
From a directorial perspective, “Son of Saul” is definitely one of the very ambitious debuts in cinema. The 39 year old Hungarian Laszlo Nemes, who had trained at Bela Tarr’s school (worked as assistant for Tarr in “The Man from London”, 2007) designs an aesthetic that is devoid of sensational or melodramatic embellishments. Apart from the staging of mundane horrors, Nemes excels with minutely choreographed blocking and movements. A slight mishandling of shallow focus, long takes and experiential tone could have pushed the visuals into bad video-game territory, but it never seems showy or feels as exploitative as traditional holocaust films. Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig has made his acting debut as Saul Auslander. He has done away with all feelings and sentimental attributes for Saul to give an enormous intensity. Movies about genocide are so much about masses that it has no face, but Rohrig’s is a face that isn’t easily forgettable.
The content and form of “Son of Saul” (108 minutes) may pave way to numerous debates about Holocaust cinema in the coming years. Regardless of those debates, it remains more excruciating & piercing than the usual fictionalizations.