When confronted with the direst of circumstances, when the body is bound and all capacity for reason defeated, it often falls to the mind with its inﬁnite elasticity to conjure up a way out where there’s none, to feed the survival instinct its very last fuel.
For those trapped inside a place as depraved and hopeless as the genocidal machinery of Auschwitz, for example, feeling the vital beat of conscience might mean slightly fixing the narrative, telling a better story if need be. So when the protagonist of the Cannes Grand Prix winner Son of Saul (Saul fia), a Hungarian-Jewish inmate tasked with cleaning up the gas chamber after each use, sets out to find a rabbi to properly bury a corpse he identifies as his child’s, it’s far from clear whether there’s any truth to the claim. In fact, the harrowing drama about someone who puts himself through grave dangers for the sake of a dead boy takes on a whole new signiﬁcance when one considers the possibility that his supposed motivation is but pure fabrication.
In many ways, ﬁrst-time feature writer/director Nemes, displaying both profound compassion and technical ﬁnesse, has crafted a Holocaust movie you’ve never seen before. With the camera often trained extremely close on Saul and the entire ﬁlm shot in the narrower academy aspect ratio, you’re caught in the POV of a single man, made to experience his restlessness, humiliation and panic as he navigates the perils of concentration camps. Meanwhile, several long, expertly orchestrated sequences that capture with uninterrupted intensity the horror of mass executions and violent crackdowns throw you right into hell on earth, accompanied by screams reverberating down history. Such sure-handed, all-around compelling stylistic choices aside, in the end it’s what Nemes says about hanging on to your last shred of humanity – be it invented or not – that gives this startling debut its unforgettable touch.
Son of Saul | Dirtected by László Nemes (Hungary 2015) with Géza Röhrig, Urs Rechn. Starts March 10.