Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando: a prisoner of Auschwitz who assists in the extermination of his own race. That requires a great deal of work, which, apparently, is far too dirty for the hands of Nazi soldiers. Each day, he ushers the people in and cleans the remains of the showers with hopeless resignation. That is, until one of those remains appears to be his son.
Having no time to ‘help’ anymore, he begins searching for a rabbi to perform a proper burial. Of course, it’s not that simple. To begin, rabbis are an endangered species. Plus, he has to ward off fellow inmates who feel that he’s ruining their surprise rebellion. Also, it’s a death camp. People are executed for much less than stealing a corpse from the crematorium.
Thankfully, a lot happens off-screen. First time director László Nemes uses a 4:3 ratio, boxing Saul into an almost perpetual close up. With long takes and no music, his reckless chase for something sacred takes on an excruciating real time urgency – like being in his head. The result is more of a thriller set in a death camp.
To that end, it is an active frame. In the background and out of focus is a fully-realised, impressionistic horror. Add to that the epic soundtrack design, and you are never able to forget where you are and what you are doing there. Neither are the characters.
The plot depends on the briefest of stolen glances, so the casting has to be – is – pretty much perfect. Particularly for Saul. Röhrig’s sunken, darting eyeballs carry us through a potboiler of fury and desperation. With just a close-up, he gives his character a roaring engine.
In different hands, this story might have been about the persistence of the human spirit, but that expression is as kaput as the Holocaust genre. Nemes is not that grandiose: he tells one man’s story simply and honestly, and resurrects a true empathic connection. As if it weren’t just for the movies. As if it happened.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Son of Saul is out in Australian cinemas on the 25th of February.