DIR: László Nemes • WRI: László Nemes, Clara Royer • PRO: Gábor Rajna, Gábor Sipos • DOP: Mátyás Erdély • ED: Matthieu Taponier • DES: László Rajk • MUS: László Melis • CAST: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Our eyes are opened, distorted and deprived, delved deep beneath boundless colours blurring textures and shapes, burying light into shade onto undefined space. From the first image audiences are challenged to find clarity, to piece together a tune from the hovering, cluttered chords of misinformation. How can one seek something from nothing? The question put forward by director László Nemes, daring to peel back the worth of his own language, prodding for a purpose and probing for cause, all too aware of its limited vocabulary in articulating pain beyond belief. If the Holocaust was the loss of meaning, how can cinema attempt to translate it?
From the bleary backdrop we were presented, a lone figure steps into focus. In Son of Saul, Nemes seeks to abandon the grammar of mainstream cinema which serves to obscure the essence of the Holocaust. Where other films hazed our sights aiming to capture the enormity of evil, Nemes’ frame is fitted for the ‘individual’.
Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) ushers us ‘tween the doleful shades of mankind’s memory. He is part of a selected group of prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau called the Sonderkommando, victims made complicit in their own murder. It was their duty to lead fellow Jews to gas chambers, burn their corpses and scatter the ashes. A demonic burden, which, as author Primo Levi notes, “deprived them of even the solace of innocence”. Saul slinks in the shadows between the living and the dead, occupying a body hollowed out and fused with the grinding gears of streamlined genocide. His face has been rinsed, beaten and battered numb as the terror of evil dissolves into the humdrum. Lifeless limbs blotched blue and grey streak along the outskirts of the frame while the preceding thuds and screams are pitched past the pitch of grief. It takes a young boy’s dying gasps to breathe life into Saul’s existence, resuscitating his soul with a stubborn purpose. After smuggling the boy’s body from incineration we follow Saul as he trails a network of whispered bargains determined in finding a rabbi to ensure a proper burial.
Nemes employs a technical strategy that conscripts our imagination to construct the horror as an unnerving balance is struck between visual deprivation and auditory bombardment. He restricts his camera from escorting us through the muddled garble of swastikas and salutes while refusing to make a spectacle out of human suffering. Any bodies seen are often squashed into the familiar and forgotten corners of routine. Above, the air is clotted with fear, dense layers of churning clanks weld with cries of distress, a corrosive compound of horrific harmony. It’s a soundscape which refines the smeared glimpses of agony into tangible terrors, colluding with the mind’s eye in prying open the tight boundaries of the frame, making seen the unseen.
Always in the centre of this perceptive assault is Saul, rationing a sliver of focus in order to make sense of a background befogged by barbarism. We become his sewn witnesses watching humanity unspool through his eyes, every step is tracked , each turn is trailed only to be lost in a waltz choreographed by chaos.
Catapulted into confusion it’s Saul we cling to, and it’s a grasp which never looks to loosen. The clever use of academy ratio evokes the intimacy of a portrait, tune tailored for one man. This is a man undone, trying to keep grip onto the last tender shreds of decency. What fuels this quest is an urge to seek spiritual symmetry in a world shunted askew. Unlike the other Sonderkommandos, Saul’s moral pursuit transcends flesh, reaching to another realm of hopeful salvation. Though his actions to get there are questionable, risking lives and potentially jeopardizing his squad’s uprising, “we’ll die because of you” one barks, to which Saul replies, “We’re already dead.” It’s a rare remark in a film of scant of conversation, making Röhrig’s performance even more mesmerizing, managing to convey character through gestures of subtle defiance. It’s in his eyes where a gentle tension lies, a noble vocation chimed with deranged determination, a victim of the victims falls victim to ambition.
In Son of Saul, László Nemes rips a chapter out of the history books, no longer a subject but an immersive environment of trauma where a one-man war is waged against spiritual decay. But there are no heroes to be found, for this film, like Saul, “forsakes the living for the dead”, restraining to seduce our sights with sentimentality nor sate our tastes with palatable pastiche. A cog unwinds itself from the mechanisms of genocide, and through it we bear an everlasting sense of loss. From kindled compassion we brush against a fleeting transcendence where ritual restores reason, dignifying the dead.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Son of Saul is released 29th April 2016