A day in the death camp

A new view of Holocaust in Cannes grand-prize winner

Opens Friday, Feb. 26. Starring Géza Röhrig. Directed by László Nemes. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Son of Saul, the Hungarian film that won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is favored to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I have no problem with that at all, but I do think that this brilliant and harrowing drama is exceptional in ways that are rare among Oscar nominees, even in the customarily artsy foreign film category.

Writer-director László Nemes’ feature film debut is a Holocaust story told from an unusual and ultimately very powerful perspective. The setting is Auschwitz and the perspective is chiefly that of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew whose status in the camp’s Sonderkommando (a “special unit” made up of inmates charged with maintaining order among all the other inmates) makes him an observer as well as a victim and a facilitator.

The real genius of Son of Saul resides in Nemes’ recognition of stylistic choices that are moral and humanistic as well as artistic. The film follows Saul right from the start and in what is literally a very close way. In the film’s lengthy opening shot, he is frequently seen very close up as he moves along with a crowd of what we will soon realize are prisoners being shunted toward a particular destination in a Nazi death camp.

The entire film proceeds in the manner of that first shot. And that approach yields a fiercely “existential” drama that is simultaneously intimate and multitudinous. Nemes’ film gives us an inside view of the realities of a death camp, but avoids making those realities into any kind of grand, obscene movie spectacle.

Instead, Son of Saul lets us discover those realities anew, partly through the actions and demeanor of the seemingly impassive Saul and above all through what we can see (barely) and hear (most distinctively) in the scenes through which he moves. That fragmentary, moment-to-moment approach to experience is crucial to the film’s powerfully humane honesty and to its determination to treat history as living memory.

The apparent mysteries and contradictions of Saul are also part of that vital remembrance. Even as his own situation becomes more perilous, he’s trying to arrange for a proper Jewish burial for a boy whose corpse he finds and who may or may not be his actual son.

Röhrig maintains a stone-cold, “expressionless” face through almost all of a role in which he is onscreen and highly visible for all but a few moments of this 107-minute film. But the emotion that is slowly emerging in his Saul, and in this film with that title, is one of the rewards offered by Nemes’ arduously earnest drama.