Movies are the epitome of escapism. It’s why blockbusters cause such commotion and why Marvel films are in a league of their own; they offer up spectacle for two hours where people can sit down and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist with these larger than life characters. On the flipside, there’s also the case where filmgoers can distance themselves from the film, particularly when there’s something horrible or inhumane taking place. They (we) do this by telling themselves, “it’s only a movie, it’s not real.” What we’re seeing on screen isn’t actually happening, we can calm down.
What’s so masterful about Laszlo Nemes outstanding first feature film is that as an audience, we’re unable to do either of those actions. It’s not escapism because the film finds itself quite literally in a fiery hell, and we can’t possibly escape it by distancing ourselves. Not only because the film is set during the Holocaust, a real life horror, but also because Nemes has made it impossible for the audience to separate themselves from the story through sheer filmmaking prowess. Never before have I seen a film that’s taken a familiar topic and made it so startlingly immersive and visceral, with some of the most ingenious sound design I’ve ever heard, that had me looking over my shoulder not just once, but twice, looking for where the sound had come from only to realize it was the movie. The film engulfs you.
Debuting at Cannes last year, the film was met with immediate and enthusiastic acclaim, but this isn’t a film for the faint of heart. I myself felt a bit of unease as the film began to roll, knowing that it would leave me heartsick, that it would place me straight in the heart of pure, unfiltered evil. I left the theater feeling jittery, shaken by the story that had just transpired and that’s one of the greatest compliments I could give this film. We should feel shocked watching the horrors that took place, we should feel disgust at the actions being taken against Saul and the others, we should cover our face at the bigotry charged malevolence that strikes down upon these characters.
Saul (an incredible Geza Rohrig) is a concentration camp inmate, a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who works as a Sonderkommando member, burning the bodies of the dead prisoners. Coming across a body of a young boy who he believes to be his son, he becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi to arrange a traditional burial, trying to save the soul of his boy. On the outside of his tunnel vision, there’s also murmurs of an uprising of the Sonderkommandos who, with the knowledge that they are soon to be killed, want to destroy the camp and escape. The uprising provides an even greater sense of trepidation in Saul’s decisions, and the script by Nemes and Clara Royer is fearless in not shying away from the ambiguity of Saul’s actions. We understand his longing to bring peace to the boy, in any way his faith allows it, and Rohrig brings enough silent grief and steely, unshakable resolve that we’re able to sympathize for the entirety of the film. On the other hand, much of what he does results in putting the success of the uprising in jeopardy. The film plays with themes of innocence and how it can be worthy of saving as well as a damning attribute, particularly in some of the final acts; how can we condemn Saul for desperately reaching for a way to put his soul to rest, but how can we support his single minded decision to place the dead above the living?
Matias Erdely’s cinematography along with Nemes’s direction has created a film unlike any other I’ve seen this year. The film and its imagery swallows you whole, as you go on this journey with Saul, on this desperate expedition that at times seems noble and others foolhardy as he puts his fellow men in danger. Saul’s personal odyssey, where we’re always wondering whether or not he’s truly trying to save the boy’s soul or cleanse his own, is beautiful but devastating to behold. The light flickers beyond the trees, and Saul and his people rest behind barred gates and hold on to any fleeting amount of hope that they have left.
With much of the film shot over the shoulder, we’re always an inch away from the death that Saul sees, mostly gruesome, but Nemes has managed to fit in real beauty as well, shooting it so it’s always out of reach. It’s the beauty of the natural surroundings, of the greens that have yet to be burnt to a crisp, or the fields that have yet to be stained by the fallen’s blood, juxtaposed with the work Saul does, burying his own people, stripping them of their belongings before ushering them into a gas chamber that rumbles and roars with their cries that makes the film bracingly horrific to experience. There’s beauty in this film, but it’s beauty that the characters will never touch, always looking over their shoulders, always looking back at someone who’s been left behind.
Son of Saul is out now.