It could be argued that the reason that the Catholic sacrament of confession has stood the test of time – within and without its traditional format – is because the verbalisation of one’s own private horrors has a cauterising effect: once spoken, the demon is released into the cleansing, dissipating air. Psychotherapy, of course, works in a similar fashion.
It is the literal unspeakability of the breadth, depth and shaming depravity of the crimes of the Holocaust that, at least to my (admittedly privileged, Gentile, generation-removed) mind, plays a central role in its unfathomability, each tiny revelation by a survivor another blow to our hopes that man has forsaken brutality in favour of civilisation.
In an excoriating directorial début, László Nemes takes that wordlessness, that scarred numbness of the – at least for now – survivor, the blurring of time and the shapeshifting of horror to a natural and fitting conclusion with Son of Saul.
The film tells the story of 36 hours in the life of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) – a Jew forced to work as part of the Sonderkommando. This team of Jewish inmates at Auschwitz is forced to help the Nazis in conducting the business of death by helping shepherd their fellows into the gas chambers, burning the bodies and disposing of the ashes in exchange for some meagre special treatment and a slight delay in their inevitable execution. Early in the film, he sees the execution of a young boy who survived a gassing. Taking the boy to be his son, he sets out on the grim task of saving his body from the flames and finding a rabbi who can intone the Hebrew Kaddish (prayers for the dead) and give the boy a proper burial – a venture taking place against the backdrop of a planned revolt by the Sonderkommando members against their masters, made possible through theft, cunning and the bribing of guards with the valuables of the dead.
Cinematography, under Mátyás Erdély, is close-up heavy and generally in pretty shallow focus, resulting in the starkness of the brutalised determination of Saul’s face, which is our principal image for a lot of the film, to be set against an impressionist landscape where the bulk of the violence takes place. The grim reality of the murders of millions is caught only in glimpses or in a blurred form at the rear of the shot while Saul’s desire to avenge the viciousness of his son’s death with the peacefulness and normality of a proper Jewish burial is played out over long takes. The periodic unsteadiness of the camera and the urgency of the task at hand build over the 107-minute running time as the Allies get closer and the execution rate rises exponentially. People go into gas chambers almost without one noticing, and are referred to as ‘pieces’ by the guards when the time comes for them to be burned. Pits are filled with the freshly-shot, which one only catches out of the corner of an eye while watching fires rage in the back of the shot. I was left wondering whether I found the backgrounding of the murders problematic, or whether it was a clever way of dealing with death on such a vast scale that it was impossible to properly reverence each victim. Either way, the visceral, uncleanable filth of the environment was rendered even more emotionally tangible in the 35mm film version which I attended.
Röhrig’s performance of controlled grit and a father’s unstoppable, raging grief is only tempered by other emotion right at the close of the film, concluding a brave, roiling performance where dialogue is always of minimal importance. He is joined by storming performances from Urs Rechn – a Sonderkommando ‘capo’ who is initially behind the planned revolt, and Leventé Molnár’s outing as Abraham – Saul’s colleague in whose hands their rebellion and escape finally rests. Both men give great delicacy to necessarily rough-handed performances as men for whom hope lies in the terrible need for decisive action with uncertain ends.
Son of Saul, which is released in the UK on April 29, is a searing exploration of morality, courage and love in a time of the worst kind of hate, and László Nemes has, in his first work, proven himself to be a director who can, with furious tenderness, evoke not only our most barrel-scraping desperation, but also our belief in a legacy of hope amid a seemingly endless cycle of violent inhumanity. It earned its Oscar, and it certainly earned my highest respect.
Dir: László Nemes
Scr: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Jerzy Walczak, Sandór Zsótér, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Márton Ágh, Juli Jakab, László Somorjai
Prd: Krisztina Pintér, Gábor Rajna, Gábor Sipos, Judit Stalter, Robert Vamos
DOP: Mátyás Erdély
Country: Hungary (Dialogue in mixture of Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Polish, Slovak, French, Greek and Hebrew with English subtitles)
Running time: 107 mins
Son of Saul is available on DVD now.