Hailed as a masterpiece when it premiered at Cannes last May, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul has already won a place among the pantheon of films (Shoah and Night and Fog being two of the most significant) that successfully convey the horrors of the Holocaust. Nemes’ film stars non-professional actor Geza Rohrig as Saul, a Hungarian Jew who has been designated a member of the Sonderkommando within the concentration camp where he is imprisoned. As a Sonderkommando, Saul’s responsibilities include ushering other Jewish prisoners into the gas chambers, sorting through their belongings, and helping dispose of their remains. When he discovers the body of a pre-adolescent boy who he believes may have been his illegitimate son, he sets off on a mission to find a rabbi who will help him give the boy a proper Jewish burial.
As a first-time filmmaker, Nemes shows tremendous promise. Son of Saul is technically virtuosic, shot in a handheld style that feels bracing in its immediacy. Nemes’ use of extremely shallow focus (most everything further away from us than Rohrig’s face is relegated to the blurry periphery of the frame) is more than just a technical stunt: it becomes a way for Nemes to convey the more gruesome details of the camps without reveling in them. And yet the film left me curiously unmoved in ways that Shoah and Night and Fog (or even Schindler’s List) do not. It may be that the film’s plotting seems to me unnecessarily complicated. Saul’s plight as a Sonderkommando would seem to be inherently compelling in itself—do we really need the plot device of the son and a subplot about prisoners trying to organize an uprising within the camp, all of which seems to unfold within the span of 72 hours? Perhaps more than any other film on this subject, Son of Saul succeeds in making us feel like we’re there in the camps with its characters. But the necessity of such an experience feels questionable. After seeing Night and Fog I couldn’t shake it off, and I remain perpetually haunted by Shoah, which I last saw six years ago. When Son of Saul was over, I stopped thinking about it. It’s possible to argue that Son of Saul is an impeccably made film; at the same time, it seems to add nothing new to the body of work on which it draws.