By Richard von Busack
One of the top 10 films of last year, and one of the finest ever made about the Holocaust, is Son of Saul, the 2015 Grand Prize winner at Cannes by the debuting Laszlo Nemes. It’s impressive in many ways, but the film’s successful blend of the closely focused with a leafy, transcendental finish is maybe the most startling. Shooting in 35mm film, Nemes takes a monochrome subject and gives it vivid, lurid color—the expressionist green of stricken faces are sometimes encrimsoned by the constant fires. “Bela Tarr was my school,” Nemes has said. The great Tarr’s seriousness, spaciousness and focus on the calamity of 20th century history are reflected in this distillation of 36 hours at Auschwitz.
Geza Roehrig is a “sonderkommando”—a trustee in the death camp, on hand to grease the wheels of the death machinery. During the routine of scrubbing bodily fluids off the floor of the gas chamber, Saul discovers something doubly remarkable: A boy who is still alive despite the Zyklon-B … a boy who is apparently his own son. While the boy dies, something in this shutdown man comes alive. Using favors and pleading, he claims the body in hopes of burying it with the traditional Jewish prayer, the Kaddish, to be performed by a rabbi.
“Apparently” is the right word to describe the kinship, since there’s some doubt among Saul’s fellow inmates about the identity of the boy. And there’s a counterpoint. The war is already lost, and the Nazis are accelerating the process of killing, intensifying the violence and fury of the camp.
Son of Saul’s model might be the Dardennes Brothers’ film The Son, which follows a subject from a distance of about three feet, as he carries out a mysterious, perhaps lethal errand. The superb Roehrig may have the thousand-yard stare of a traumatized man, but what he sees is in very close focus—we’re in his own personal bubble, and the carnage around him is all out of focus. He’s beyond shock. He’s slumped, trying not to be a looker or a listener (people not minding their own business get shot faster). Seeing the Shoah through his experience makes you feel that you’ve seen more of the camp than you’d imagined possible. Saul’s seizure of his own humanity through this insistence of a proper burial is a grand act of defiance.