There's a reason 38-year-old Hungarian director László Nemes' feature debut won the Best Foreign Language Oscar last weekend. Son of Saul achieves the almost inconceivable: It reinvents the Holocaust movie.
The drama unfolds over a day and a half in Auschwitz. Yet we see no crowded trains, no ghostly smoke rising from crematorium chimneys, no rows of barracks — for that matter, few of the images familiar from previous screen accounts of this historical horror.
Instead, we see what one man sees, and he survives largely by keeping his head down. His name is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig). As an opening title card informs us, he's one of the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in preventing their assembly line of death from slowing even for a second.
The opening sequence, one of the most powerful ever filmed, announces to the viewer that Nemes intends to tell his story using an entirely new cinematic vocabulary. The image is squared off, shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio and almost always tight on its subject, who fills the frame in a way that heightens the film's sense of claustrophobia. The camera often shoots over Saul's shoulder, employing a shallow focus technique that blurs everything not in his line of sight.
What we hear is more nightmarish than what we see. A band plays. A friendly voice reminds newcomers to remember the number of the hook on which they've hung their clothing, telling them hot soup awaits them after their shower. We glimpse naked men, women and children passing through a metal doorway. Then the doors slam, and we hear screaming and pounding, louder and louder, until silence descends.
At which point Saul mechanically does his job. He takes down the clothes, separates valuables, drags bodies — which the guards refer to as "pieces" — from the room and scrubs blood from the floor in preparation for the next train. At the periphery of his vision, we make out corpses stacked beside flaming pits, prisoners being shot and members of his group planning an uprising.
Then we clearly see what Saul sees, the sight that sets the rest of the movie's action in motion. A boy has somehow survived the cyanide and been placed on a crate for inspection. After checking his heart with a stethoscope, the doctor calmly suffocates him and orders the workers to "open him up" for an autopsy.
Is this actually Saul's son, or is the murder simply the last psychological straw for him? We're never told. All we know is that Saul makes it his mission to save the boy's body from the ovens and find a rabbi to preside over a proper Jewish burial. He spends the balance of the film navigating the maze of the camp, bartering and making deals in the hope of doing this one decent thing, while atrocities of every variety unfold around him. The director's revolutionary approach allows us to accompany the protagonist down every hall, through every tunnel, sticking to him like a second skin and seeing through his eyes.
Right up to its mystifying final frames, Son of Saul offers a guided tour of the depths of human darkness. Sure, movies have been there before, but never in so direct and unadorned a fashion. Nemes has said his goal was to tell a Holocaust story "without projecting postwar emotions or emotions codified in film." In other words, to portray life in the camp as it was experienced in that tragic time and place, before its day-to-day drudgery had been converted into drama. I think you'll agree the filmmaker has created an unforgettably fresh hell.