To attempt to encapsulate the unfathomable experience of the Holocaust in a narrative film would seem to be a fool's errand, although that hasn't stopped scores of filmmakers from trying, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of awards for dealing with this most serious of topics. Playing "herself" on Ricky Gervais' "Extras" a few years before winning Best Actress for a Holocaust film, Kate Winslet opined, "If you do a film about the Holocaust, (you're) guaranteed an Oscar."
The Holocaust may be awards bait, but it is also a cultural minefield, demanding sensitivity and a storytelling angle that avoids the appearance of exploitation. Though unavoidably controversial, the Hungarian film "Son of Saul" succeeds in its dramatic aims through its focus on one man's last grasp at humanity amidst the dehumanizing horrors of Auschwitz.
"Son of Saul" marks the feature-filmmaking debut of Laszlo Nemes, who also co-scripted the film with Clara Royer. A former assistant to acclaimed Hungarian film director Bela Tarr, Nemes has learned from that master the power of simplicity and restraint, to the degree that any depiction of the workings of a concentration camp can be restrained. Eschewing wide establishing shots, "Son of Saul" plays its action disorientingly tight as it follows sonderkommando Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), in his face, at the back of his head, or just behind his shoulder as he moves through the Dantean "Inferno" of Auschwitz.
The sonderkommando were prisoners conscribed, in short terms, into leading fellow Jews from the transports into the showers, and then removing the corpses for the next round. The soul-deadening job has already taken its toll on Saul, for whom literal death is promised soon.
But the miraculous survival of a boy breaks through to Saul, and even when the boy's life has been extinguished, Saul's flame of humanity continues to flicker. In spite of his pronounced survival instinct, Saul goes on a desperate, single-minded quest for a pyrrhic victory: a proper Jewish burial for the boy, who Saul immediately claims as his son. Is Saul telling the truth about his parentage? Is he delusional? Is it a lie of expedience? Or a lie he chooses to believe? Nemes doesn't answer these questions, suggesting that any answer would be smaller than the larger truth.
Make no mistake: "Son of Saul" is a visceral and emotionally draining experience, full-immersion from its surround-sonic onslaught and visual cues -- such as out-of-focus masses of bodies, live and dead, clothed and naked -- to its psychoanalysis of its haunted protagonist. Rohrig powerfully realizes Saul's studied nonchalance around his Nazi oppressors spinning into a widening gyre of anxiety and reawakened humanity. Nemes' deeply moving film dramatizes those extraordinary circumstances under which even the meanings of life and death become foreign and in desperate need of rediscovery.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity. One hour, 47 minutes.