The first image in SON OF SAUL is a green landscape that is out of focus. There is the sound of someone in distress, and the image of a man walking towards the camera until his impassive face fills the screen and comes into focus. Much else comes into focus in the course of this extraordinary film, and it is through the medium of that face, that of Hungarian Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), that that clarity is achieved. It is not the clarity of a careful narrative, but rather that of an immersive experience in the reality of the Auschwitz concentration camp at the end of World War II as lived by Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who led their fellow Jews into the gas chambers, and then disposed of the remains. There is no introduction, there are no explanations. There is only being able to live through the next second, next minute, next hour without incurring the wrath of the Nazi guards, or the enmity of fellow prisoners.
In a series of extraordinary tracking shots, with the camera tight of Saul’s face, or looking directly over his shoulder as he goes about his work, the depth of field is shallow, echoing the visceral immediacy of Saul’s reality. There is no time to think, only to act, to time to take in what is going on around him. That changes when Saul is suddenly jolted out of his fugue state by the death of one particular boy. His obsession to insure that this one dead body, among the thousands that he has processed, receives a proper Jewish burial brings Saul’s spirit back to life, even as his actions threatens the safety of his fellow Sondtherkommando’s already precarious existence.
The physical horrors of the concentration camp remain on the periphery, instead it is the psychological torture that is made manifest. As would be true of a Sonderkommando, the screams of terror as victims realize what is happening to them barely register, the dead bodies lose their humanity, even the impersonal sadism of guards abusing prisoners as much out of boredom as discipline, is almost white noise for Saul. His body lives, but his soul is dead, his ability to empathize is gone. His obsession for what happens to the corpse he has adopted becomes an awakening, and a final, desperate clinging to the humanity that the Nazis would have taken from him before sending him, too, into the ovens. Röhrig gives one of the great cinematic performances, his face, as noted, an impassive mask assumed for his protection, but with micro-expressions that reveal a wealth of emotions. Remarkably, none of them fear. Saul, he understands, has moved past that.
The details of the process of the organized mass murder in Auschwitz are made all the more horrific for the matter-of-fact way they are presented. Guards, for example, complain about the influx of victims that force them to shoot them and throw them into a pit instead of gassing and then cremating them. Fellow prisoners are rivals, not comrades. There is also, though, the odd invisibility of those considered subhuman, the interchangeable nature of people who are less valuable than a shovel, and who can scurry about under the noses of their captors with a certain impunity that comes of living with a death sentence looming over them.
Director/ co-writer and László Nemes uses the disconnect of truly exquisite cinematography and a highly refined, multilayered sound design to tell the story. The way warm light limns the profiles of faces in moments of emotional clarity, or that cold light impassively reveals the dead, and those soon to be. The way the noise never stops, but never repeats, as trains arrive, machines feed bodies into the ovens, or the babble of voices speaking many languages intrudes on every moment creates the tense atmosphere in which Saul lives. There is also a subtle manipulation of sound and light, as a camera cuts away and leaves us hanging for what seems an eternity while waiting for a gunshot that may or may not come, or introduces a sudden, sharp report that reveals our expectation of a gunshot where none has taken place.
SON OF SAUL is a thing of harsh beauty. It is also a thing of great understanding, showing us what we would rather not see, but making us glad that we have borne witness, not because what we have seen has been made safe, but rather because it has been made more dangerous for what it says about the human race.