The heavy iron doors leading to the "showers" are unlocked, so Saul (Géza Röhrig) and his comrades get on all fours to quickly scrub the blood from the floor so that the room may be used again when the next "shipment" arrives in a few hours. Saul is a Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to work for the Nazis at concentration camps under threat of death), and that narrative vantage point dictates both the look and feel of Hungarian director László Nemes' directorial debut, Son of Saul (2015). Morality is the primary source of conflict in this bleak film, and though it's filled with death, life and a respect for the dead is what makes this film move.
Uncompromising in its approach to narrative, Son of Saul begins with Jews being unloaded from trains and then herded by Saul and the other Sonderkommandos to the showers. "The water is too cold to drunk, but there will be tea afterwards," says a Nazi to a Jew inquiring about the showers. History allows for a contemporary audience to understand that there will be no tea, as there will be no shower. Once the hundred or so Jews are all undressed and have filed into the "shower", the doors lock and we remain outside with Saul as the innocent people on the other side of the door begin screaming and banging on the doors. A few minutes later, the doors are opened, and everyone – excluding a single boy – has died. With every breath he takes, it's apparent that he's in pain. Watching as a Nazi commander places his hand over the boys mouth and nose until he suffocates to death, Saul then takes it upon himself to try to give this boy a proper burial – a difficult and dangerous task that puts every Sonderkommando's life on the line.
Trapped into a life of servitude to the Nazis, Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos have no desire to deceive the living and then burn the bodies of the dead, but they must. Saul's efforts to give the dead boy he salvages from the gas chambers a different fate goes against the traditional mindset of the Sonderkommandos, which is to distant one's self from the humanity of the dead. The cinematography reflects this moral dilemma, as it puts us not in the shoes, but rather in the mind of a Sonderkommando.
First of all, Son of Saul is filmed in the classic 4:3 Academy ratio, effectively making it less a cinematic experience, and more of an experience in general. The limited frame of a 4:3 composition contributes to the limited perspective of the film. Throughout much of the film, the camera floats over the shoulder or just behind Saul. Daringly, the lenses used provide an intensely shallow depth of field which often makes the back of Saul's head the only thing readily in focus. The mounds of unclothed Jewish corpses appear as blurs as Saul lifts a body from the floor of the gas chamber and adds it to the growing pile. Remaining visually in focus, Saul and his struggle is the focus of the film. Everything that he sees would be better off ignored so that he can live with himself, so the shallow depth of field allows for the audience to struggle with Saul's own distance from what he has to do at the Nazi death camps every day.
In the same way that the cinematography limits our view of the atrocities committed at the concentration camp, the dialogue in the film reflects that as well. Undoubtedly true to the time and setting, the dialogue is a string of euphemisms to separate the Sonderkommandos from the innocent dead. "It", as an inanimate pronoun, is frequently used to refer to the dead body of any Jew, as to disassociate the person's humanity – to objectify them. Giving the body a gender would be too personal, and the line between victim and accomplice to murder is something that is at the heart of the conflict in Son of Saul.
Further complimenting the aesthetic and dialogue is the sound design, which is grounded in reality. Excluding the closing credits, there is no soundtrack in this film. Occasionally, a touch of music can be heard from a radio, but it's not an emotional cue as a non-diegetic score would've been. Without a soundtrack, the sounds of labor, the screams of those dying, and the breathing of our protagonist and those he comes into contact with make the sound one of the more directly engaging elements of the film. The look of Son of Saul distances us from the surroundings, but brings us closer to the protagonist's role at the death camp. Sound is unavoidable though, as it confronts us with the reality that Saul would rather not see.
Unlike Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) or other notable Holocaust films, Son of Saul is a film that is stripped of conventional cinematic technique in favor of providing a more engrossing experience. The environment that Saul is surrounded by is not conducive to sentimental moments or likable characters, and it doesn't have to (nor should it, anyway). On a perspective level alone, Son of Saul is formally in tune with the atrocities committed at the camp, so the responsibility to feel anything is placed on the audience (whatever emotion that may be) rather than on the characters. Even then, Saul feels for his fellow man, and it's beautiful to observe a man with convictions do everything in his power to do something right for one person as a gesture for the millions of others who could not be given the same respect.
My rating: 4/5