We talk a lot about the camera being an eye for the audience into the world of the film. This idea is on full display in the debut film of László Nemes, Son of Saul, a Hungarian film that is up for the Best Foreign Language award at this year’s Oscars.
The film opens with two sequences: one with our main character, Saul (Géza Röhrig), helping a group of people off of trains at a concentration camp and another with him escorting the people from the trains into the shower chamber, where he sits idly by as they are killed before cleaning up the mess. Along the way, Nemes holds the camera either in front of Röhrig or directly behind him with the rest of the frame unfocused. This technique creates the feeling of disconnect — something the character developed due to his position within the concentration camp — as well as the idea that we are watching these events from the perspective of Saul and seeing the actions in motion through his lens.
The majority of Son of Saul is hard to watch. Movies about the Holocaust seem impossible to make after films such as Schindler’s List really captured this period in history and made attempting to tell the stories again irreverent unless they can come with a unique perspective. This is what sets Son of Saul apart, not only because of the visual techniques that Nemes implements, but also because of the story being told and perspective we are asked to take.
Saul is a Jew in 1944 Auschwitz, but for unexplained reasons, he has been assigned to a legion of men working within the most treacherous of positions in the camp — burning the bodies of their own people and then cleaning up their remains and tossing them out. While cleaning up, Saul notices the body of a barely living boy, who is quickly picked up and taken aside to be finished off. After taking the body to the doctor, Saul is given permission to bring a rabbi and have a few words said for the boy, who he takes for his son.
Son of Saul runs an odd moral line — at one point asking us to join Saul on this ill-advised crusade to give this boy a proper burial even if it means risking his own life and also risking the lives of his other members, who are also staging an upheaval at the same time. One can understand why Saul would want to help the boy if he was truly his son, but the growing sense seems to be that this isn’t true and the other men, led by Abraham (Levente Molnár), seem to know it.
Saul does not grasp this concept and goes as far as to pluck who he thinks is a rabbi out of a crowd set to be shot and tossed into the pits — just barely avoiding the same fate himself after being mistaken for someone in the group. Each attempt at bringing closure to this boy’s life is unfulfilled and butchered, leaving Saul to become more and more engrossed with achieving this goal at any cost.
It is easy to latch onto Saul and his goal because of the acts being committed around him. The unfocused imagery that Nemes uses while following Röhrig around the camp disconnects the audience from the atrocities happening around the characters. Through the beginning two sequences, Nemes knows that the audience does not need to fully witness what is happening to these people — electing to let the actions take place within the unfocused space and allow Röhrig’s facial expressions to tell the tale.
This disconnect from the activity around Saul feels perfectly suited for a character that seems disconnected from them as well. It seems necessary for a person in his position to try and not think about what is happening as much as possible, but Saul also has a detachment from his fellow workers and their goal of uprising against the German soldiers. This focused mindset works hand-in-hand with Nemes’ camera choices and the defined technique being used for most of the film.
While part of us may side with Abraham and the others and feel like Saul should ditch this tired effort to give the boy a proper burial and help the uprising, Nemes stays true to the character’s ideas and drags the audience along with Saul as he attempts to achieve his goal.
Son of Saul is a film about the brutal side during a grim period in history and tells the story of a man attempting to free himself from this brutality with the only sliver of humanity he has left. It may seem ill-advised and illogical to pursue, but who knows how long he has been lodged in this position and there is a sense that something finally broke in his mind. In an environment that required people to stick together, Son of Saul is both singular and misguided, fed by a lost mind and the drive to find humanity in this dark and bleak world.