Hell Is a Place on Earth: Son of Saul

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Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Opens December 18


“If you’re going to make a film about genocide, it had better be really disturbing.”

—Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence


Oppenheimer’s words came to mind the first time I saw László Nemes’s debut feature, which attempts to find a new and meaningful way of representing some part of the Holocaust. Set almost entirely in Auschwitz, Son of Saul is full of fresh horrors, but for stacking corpses before our eyes or for portraying every variety of cruelty and suffering that occurred in the camps. The ever-traveling camera stays close to one man, over the course of a couple of days, without even always showing the rest of this world in focus. Grim-faced, staring hard, Saul bustles expressionlessly through his duties as a member of the Sonderkommando—those prisoners condemned to assist in the killing—until he becomes fixated on burying a dead boy he believes to be his child.

This mission is pure folly, which is also what some consider Nemes’s film, or worse.

But the filmmaker’s goal isn’t a sensitively lit, emotive drama, with wide views that might suggest a sense of comprehension that feels unrealistic in the living death of camp existence; indeed, its biggest weakness lies in the workmanlike screenplay, packed and punctual. It’s a matter of brute mechanical process—the routines of herding people into chambers, of obeying every Nazi order—and Saul himself seems robotic. His clinging to the possibility of his son’s burial—to the point if ignoring his duties in a camp-wide revolt that is being planned—feels almost childlike in its desperation. At times, horrifically, it seems as obsessive as any other task he must perform. Son of Saul is wrenching not just because of its bereft story but because Nemes gives us as a guide a man who may be broken beyond repair.

The tight point of view and roaming camera mean that killing often happens in the background, as in a truly hellish murder roundup along a pit by firelight. This is Nemes’s concerted effort to emphasize not only that death was routine, a part of the landscape, but also that fully grasping and containing and conveying that landscape—the physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual import—may not be possible, or even desirable. It’s puzzled me, a little, that this decision has been taken for its opposite intention, as some kind of intellectualized stunt (especially when the technique is tame set against the formal experimentation of much poetry on 20th-century horrors, or, say, Time’s Arrow). Surely anticipating as much, Nemes and his supporters have brandished the Cannes endorsement by Shoah director Claude Lanzmann as proof of the film’s moral seriousness; even without the imprimatur, history is written undeniably into the film’s production detail and polyglot languages.

The 38-year-old Hungarian-born director is ambitious, no question; it takes a certain hubris to make a film about the Holocaust as your first feature, and the feat landed him a debut at Cannes. Technically, Son of Saul is a bravura feat, especially its wrenchingly detailed and textured sound design, truly evoking a factory of death. Intriguingly, Nemes had tested out his approach in his 2007 short film, With a Little Patience, in which the blinkered perspective belongs to a German clerk working in a building right nearby a Nazi murdering line. There the constrained view represented a shameful choice of contemporary Germans to ignore reality; entering the inferno completely with Son of Saul, Nemes insists upon the work that is required to grasp it at all.

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