László Nemes’ critically lauded debut film opens with a shot out of focus, the movement within the frame not quite discernible, forcing us to strain our eyes, searching implacably for clarity and meaning. However, with cinema we are unfortunately (yet miraculously) only privy to the images that the director chooses to show us and for a short period of time, we allow ourselves to see the world differently. Unlike so many films these days that attempt to expand our reality and construct a world without borders, Nemes chooses to revoke any chance at a wider expanse and focus on the hyper-personal, not only figuratively but aesthetically as well, his skill and commitment to his premise turning what could have been nothing more than an interesting experiment into an enormously effecting piece of work.
Set in Auschwitz during the midst of the Second World War, Son of Saul is instantly harrowing, following a day or two in the life of Hungarian sonderkommando, a title given to Jewish prisoners who were coerced, under threat of death by Nazi guards, into physically aiding with the extermination of their fellow captives. Saul, our guide throughout this sickening yet integral part of history, sets out on a seemingly impossibly mission to give a proper Jewish burial to the boy he claims to be his son, seeking out a rabbi in the midst of a chaotic plan for revolution being hatched between the other sonderkommandos. Finding a way to navigate this apocalyptic world that existed for so many proves to be an understandably torturous task.
Organised chaos really seems like the only way to describe many of the events that occur on screen throughout the film. We move through the underground tunnels that make up the death chambers beneath the concentration camp, out to the surrounding woods where many men and women at Auschwitz are being put to excruciating work. Nemes, however, is keen not to put the gruesome and unbelievable acts of cruelty in the centre of the frame and this serves the film in a multitude of ways. Firstly, it manipulates the audience to be far more focused on Saul’s blind dedication to his son’s burial, the camera often focused on his face, turning as he turns, swinging briefly past various atrocities to come to focus on his shell-shocked expression. For decades the sonderkommandos have been considered by some to be traitorous cowards but this film goes a long way to painting a more sympathetic picture, the importance of which cannot be understated.
Secondly, the way Nemes shoots only serves to torment our imaginations, the horrors that must be taking place behind closed doors or in rooms past which the camera darts during one of Saul’s trips to the netherworld of the concentration camp, being amplified by our mind’s eye. The work of sound designer Támas Zányi is key to creating this numbing atmosphere as so much of what we can glean from everything outside of Saul’s perspective is conveyed through the thumping industrial machinery and strangled cries of torture and death. Dark aural commotion such as this is not easy to authenticate but Zányi and his director know how effective it can be to stifle our aesthetic needs yet trigger our other senses, achieving a unique brand of empathy.
The overt nature of the aesthetics can be distracting from the equally powerful narrative but does not really lessen the power of the film as a whole. Nemes is smart not to restrict himself, and through his use of spectacularly staged handheld tracking shots, fashions a unity of inclusion and terror. However, as much as Son of Saul may seem like a tale of grief and trauma on the surface, the stunning final few moments bring to the fore an affirmation of life, a true sense of hope in the midst of pain. The fact that Nemes can weave such an affecting and complex tale out of a notoriously difficult subject in his first film is an outstanding achievement, one that puts him on a possibly unwanted pedestal concerning any of his future works.
Son of Saul screened at QUAD during Derby Film Festival on the 29th April and will be showing until the 6th May. More information on the festival and QUAD can be found here – http://www.derbyfilmfestival.co.uk/