The Holocaust is an event which still haunts the collective consciousness – a fact reflected in its continuous fictional renditions through time.
The debut feature by Hungarian director László Nemes, ‘Son of Saul’ begins in medias res, and carries us into situations explosive and devastating. Our Jewish-Hungarian protagonist Saul Ausländer (ausländer being German for ‘foreigner’) has the unfortunate position of working in a concentration camp at some indefinite point during World War II. In fact, the film never gives a definitive, clear guidepost of where or when it is set. As a ‘Sonderkommando,’ Saul is part of a team responsible for moving the ‘pieces’ (an unsettling reference to the hundreds of dead naked bodies to be dragged off of trucks and into the facility) and scrubbing the floors of their bloody trails. One day Saul spots a body amongst the dead which he identifies as being that of his own son. He spends the rest of the film looking for a Rabbi to pray for his son’s soul and perform a proper burial.
To say anymore about the plot would be pointless given the divide between the film’s narrative and the visual importance of the boundaries of the frame. ‘Son of Saul’ presents a personal story engaging with the Holocaust in a de-mystified matter-of-fact manner which constrains the crushing facts without downplaying the truth of the tragic – a feat accomplished by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s tightly maintained locus of control of the frame, elevated by the choice to lens the film in a square 1.33:1 aspect ratio, digging into Saul’s shoulders. A beautiful investigation of space, the camera registers Saul’s movements and interactions without ever letting him wander too far from our field of view. Saul is held in a series of tracking medium close-up over-the-shoulder long takes in remarkably sharp focus. He moves steadily from the god-forsaken concrete and brimstone work sites to brief moments of slight reprise from on foggy streets and densely wooded greens (still the sites of dehumanizing labor). Auxiliary objects and people are deliberately kept out of focus when they do not hold Saul’s attention. It is a startling indicator of the mental space into which the people populating these scenes have been catapulted; one must stay narrowly focused on one’s self just to survive and maintain some semblance of sanity.
‘Son of Saul’ strikes a remarkable balance between its hyper dedication to subjective perspective on Saul and a grand-scale understanding of the fact that this will never be the story of a single man but a single story among many men. Even characters inhabiting the spaces through which Saul wanders that hardly (or never) enter the frame convey their humanity in simple yet genuine gestures or telling expressions. The sound design fleshes out an entire world of what we cannot see just beyond the constraints of the visual frame. Voices whisper at us from every corner of every room or whimper from the next one. Saul cannot heed them all, no one can. There’s more death and suffering to consider than could be sympathized for in a lifetime. The claustrophobia of the frame is juxtaposed by the vast expanse of expanding sound. We can smell the hellfire hissing at us from every dank orifice and feel the crushed skeletons which once supported what are now vanquished souls.
Far more than an exercise in well-coordinated long takes, László Nemes’ steadfast commitment and surety of control stress the purpose of style choices motivated by deep consideration for the events depicted. It is unwavering, unflinching, and honest. Nemes directs with a self-assurance which is rare (or at least rarely executed so successfully) in a debut feature. It is a film which is smart enough to trust its audience to process the surface-level events on a deeper level without explicitly taking a stance on any of our main character’s actions. Loss of faith becomes a given at such a hectic point in time boiling over with the desperation of millions of confused minds and lost lives. We wonder as a society how human beings could have ever been capable of such atrocities. ‘Son of Saul’ reminds us that once a tragedy has already occurred, we can only examine the aftermath and struggle to comprehend as much as we can, through our limited yet personal frame of view.