Son of Saul review: wrestles with the impossible to stunning effect

Meticulously organised in its portrayal of dehumanisation and moral chaos, László Nemes Oscar-winner is almost beyond compare

Excesses of despair: Géza Röhrig as Sonderkommando Saul in László Nemes’ Son of Saul. Photograph: Allstar/Sony

Film Title: Son of Saul

Director: László Nemes

Starring: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sandor Zsoter, Marcin Czarnik, Jerzy Walczak, Uwe Lauer

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 107 min

Thu, Apr 28, 2016, 15:36

   

When Theodor Adorno, in one corner of a long, complex argument, told us that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, he wasn’t really declaring that no art should approach the Holocaust. The phrase does, nonetheless, stand as a handy expression of the impossibility of achieving any meaningful cultural representation of that enormity. Documentary can come close. The truth is surely too ugly for fiction.

In his debut feature, László Nemes, a Hungarian filmmaker of prodigious talent, wrestles with the impossible to stunning effect. Working with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, he reinvents the camera as a coping mechanism. Echoing the precision of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the DOP follows our protagonist everywhere, boxing the spectator into his first-person disassociation.

His face frozen into a desperate mask that conveys excesses of despair, Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. These were the inmates who, granted little more than a stay of execution, assisted in the operation of the gas chambers and the disposal of the murdered. Saul is battered back to reality when he comes across the body of someone he believes is his son in the chamber. Unlike Schindler’s List or The Pianist, Nemes’s film offers its victim nothing so unlikely as life, but, if Saul can arrange things, the boy might get a decent Jewish burial.

The director and the French novelist Clara Royes – Nemes’ co-screenwriter – allow for no fatuous discussion of Saul’s motivations in acting as Sonderkommando. Meticulously organised in its portrayal of dehumanisation and moral chaos, his film makes it implicitly clear how Auschwitz’s awful momentum swept aside such conundrums. Lurking behind the protagonist’s shoulder in the manner of the Dardenne brothers, Erdély and Nemes tell their story in long, complex shots that pass through endless layers of degradation. The decision to shoot on 35mm film allows in a (literal) darkness that digital can’t quite manage.

More conspicuous is the filmmakers’ choice to go with the Academy aspect ratio that – the work of a few mavericks like Andrea Arnold aside – we now usually only encounter in revivals. The claustrophobic frame closes Saul in, but, more importantly, it makes it easier for Nemes to edge out the greater atrocities. The most awful things in Son of Saul happen in fuzzy corners while the camera rushes past on its busy mission. It’s not the banality of evil that chills so much here as its matter-of-factness.

This is really something.