Take away the subject matter and first consider the technique. Son of Saul, from first-time writer-director László Nemes, is filmed in what’s commonly called academy ratio, so that the compressed frame is nearly square. The camera rarely veers from a close medium shot of its main character (Géza Röhrig), so that the action surrounding him is either fleetingly glimpsed or blurry. The forced perspective is focused, intense and narrow.
Now add the subject matter. Röhrig plays Saul Auslaender, a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau near the end of World War II. As a member of the Sonderkommando, Saul has prolonged his own life by helping to herd new prisoners into the gas chambers, promising them showers and telling them to “remember your hook number.” After they have been killed, he and others frantically gather the clothes, stack up the bodies and scrub the floors, making way for the next crowd of victims.
We observe all of this in the only way we could bear: at the corners of the frame, where screams are heard but not seen and the bodies being dragged pass by as white, abstract flashes. Or perhaps the method makes things worse by inflaming our cursed imaginations. Either way, applying this extreme cinematic technique to incomprehensible history made for a monumental viewing experience, a way of relocating mass atrocity to a personal level. By blurring all else and confining us to one man’s experience, Son of Saul zeroes in on humanity in the singular, reminding us how every single life that was snuffed out distinctly mattered. After the picture is over and we take a breath, pausing to consider the bigger history that encompasses Saul’s story, the large-scale loss of the Holocaust feels all the more catastrophic.
The forced perspective is focused, intense and narrow.
As Saul, Röhrig adopts the expression of a wild animal — emotionless, watchful, mindful only of survival. Notice how often he’s looking over his shoulder, even as we’re instinctively trying to do the same. He and his fellow Sonderkommado prisoners are constantly scurrying, frantically working, trying to avoid any undue attention from the guards. I was reminded of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, in which Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats.
There is a plot development, related to the movie’s title, that I won’t reveal in detail, except to say that it gives Saul a renewed, if illogical, sense of purpose. In fact, he becomes so obsessed with completing a certain task that he’s even willing to put a planned revolt among the prisoners at risk in order to achieve his single-minded goal. There is an awful poignancy to this, in that we’ve become intimate with — indeed, almost aesthetically at one with — a man who has seemingly lost his mind and is grasping for meaning. If the moral horror of the Holocaust is at once crystal clear and unfathomable, then Son of Saul exists in that tension, employing the art of cinema to create a singular act of remembrance.