Son of Saul sets out quite clearly to be an ordeal; its subject, style, story and sound design are all unified in a mission to be horrifying, exhausting, dizzying and virtually relentless. It won this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes, yet will probably only be approached by viewers who feel that watching this film is an important thing to do. They know it will be a tough time, but they’re prepared, and they’ve probably done this sort of thing before. So it’s hard to judge a film on its merits when its manner of reception already seems so clear.
Son of Saul, the debut feature of Hungarian director László Nemes, is set over the course of roughly a day at a Nazi death camp during the late stages of the Second World War. It follows a nebulous group of Sonderkommandos, able-bodied male prisoners who have been assigned physical labour and various organisational duties in the camp. They clear dining room tables, fix locks, escort new arrivals to the gas chambers, scrub the floors of blood, rob the dead of their valuables. They do what they must to survive, while attempting to carry out small acts of undetected resistance. The titular Saul, on whose face the camera almost constantly holds, is grudgingly inducted into the resistance after a split-second act of shrewd bravery involving a smuggled camera.
Yet Saul is a major inconvenience. At the film’s outset he identifies the body of a small boy and vows to arrange a decent Jewish burial for him. This is a desperately complicated process, as he must track down a rabbi, hide the boy’s body and discreetly dig a grave, all on the eve of an impending escape attempt by the Sonderkommandos. Saul is buffeted between these parallel goals in the midst of a regular day’s chaos and death, or, more precisely, between his own goal and that of the resistance.
The most striking of Nemes’s aesthetic choices is the camera work. Perhaps ninety per cent of the film is merely Saul’s face, or the back of his head, in shallow focus as he goes about his tasks. Everything around him is blurred, distant, indistinct, although certain things are unmistakeable: the viewer has no trouble making out a pile of corpses a few feet away as he passes by. In keeping with the brutally explicit subject and content of Son of Saul, the meaning of this camera perspective is clear: nobody can dramatise the extent of the Holocaust, so instead here is an attempt to cast the viewer into a subjective Hell-on-Earth, of constant agitated movement, surrounded by mass death. We’re lost, spatially unaware, and it’s antithetical to the basics of cinema: no establishing shots and only a handful of focus pulls on the middle or background.
I admire the rigour of all this, but tonally it’s wearying. Occasionally there is a cut to silence, when a new scene begins in their sleeping quarters, or anywhere away from the gas chambers or furnaces, and these are welcome moments of punctuation. Its greatest success is in showing how covert operations can even be possible in an environment such as this. History has confirmed that prisoners did indeed find ways to run an effective black market in the death camps, and as the camera cleaves so closely to Saul, snatching a few words here and there between half-strangers, we come to appreciate the stakes, the sheer fragility of the situation. And of the scene with the camera, it’s hard not to imagine the widely-reproduced handful of blurred images that were successfully smuggled out of Auschwitz, and somehow to superimpose the documented truth onto this fictionalised story.
Although the film’s style is at pains to impart subjectivity, there is always the terrible objectivity of the situation running concurrently. The raw truth of the camp is on the periphery of Nemes’s experiment with perspective, and its realness obliterates any nuances or subtexts that the story might tentatively strive for. There’s some suggestion of pre-war lives in gestures and glances between certain characters, but the surging urgency of the situation snuffs them out before they can sharpen into a functioning plot point. There’s also a hint of moral contrivance about Saul’s motivation: after witnessing so much death, what is it about this one boy that inspires him to such a suicidal mission?
For better or worse, Son of Saul is just a film about death on a merciless scale. As a viewing experience, it’s less impressive than it is stunning, like the shock of witnessing a traumatic accident. To make a qualitative judgement seems in poor taste. You’ll know already if this is a film for you.