There’s a shot upon which Hungarian director László Nemes’ Auschwitz-set drama “Son of Saul” could have ended that would make it one of the most tasteless films ever. Thankfully, Nemes is smart enough to let it go on a bit longer and conclude on a deeply disturbing note.
“Son of Saul” has been dividing spectators since its Cannes debut last May. (Ushered into the competition despite Nemes being a first-time filmmaker, it won the Grand Prize.) One acquaintance described it as “aesthetically, historically, and morally reprehensible.” On the other hand, the notoriously grumpy filmmaker Claude Lanzmann — director of “Shoah,” the most acclaimed movie ever made about the Holocaust — has said that it’s the first narrative film on the Holocaust of which he approves. If enough Americans care to see a subtitled Hungarian film and argue about it, it could be 2015’s controversy magnet, a la “American Sniper” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”
In Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, Saul Auslander (Géza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew, is a member of the Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando are a small group of Jews who work for the Nazis and live apart from the rest of the concentration camp inmates, getting slightly better treatment. His daily rounds of brutalizing work, such as sweeping out crematoria, have made him a zombie. But one day, he springs back to life when he discovers a corpse he takes for his son’s. (The film never definitively answers whether he’s right about this.) He hides the body and searches for a chance to bury it and for a rabbi to perform the Kaddish over the corpse.
Saul is usually depicted in close-ups or medium shots of his face or neck. The camera rarely ventures very far from him. At times, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély practically seems to have a camera track glued to Rohrig’s body. Nemes got his start working with Béla Tarr, famed for his long-take style, and he’s retained that influence from Tarr.
There’s a long strain of thought about the moral implications of aesthetic choices in French film criticism, perhaps best exemplified by critic-turned-filmmaker Luc Moullet’s remark that “morality is a matter of tracking shots” (later repeated by Jean-Luc Godard) and peaking with Jacques Rivette’s attack on Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Kapo.”
Since then, it’s been received wisdom for many cinephiles and critics that documentary is the only ethical way to depict the Holocaust. The kinky concentration camp antics of Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” haven’t helped, nor did Roberto Benigni’s dire Auschwitz comedy “Life Is Beautiful.”
Nemes is clearly aware of these debates, which have obviously informed his directorial choices. In the press kit, he says he wanted “Son of Saul” to avoid beautiful images and to look like a horror film. I’m not sure he successfully dodged the latter — piles of corpses aren’t so far from George Romero, even in this context. But Erdély shoots with a shallow focus allowing sound (including a Babel of unsubtitled background noise in many languages) to overpower the image. It’s as if Saul were navigating around Auschwitz without glasses; the audience shares his myopic POV. Such an approach allows Nemes to suggest all kinds of disturbing material without explicit violence. The narrative is deliberately confusing; all kinds of action, most of which only tangentially involves Saul, is taking place around him.
Some critics of “Son of Saul” have compared its style to a video game. To me, that seems really off-base. For one thing, first-person shooter games generally use far more rigid perspectives than Nemes does. For another, so what? Even if it were true, I’m not sure that it’s such a damning criticism. Certainly, it would be ethically dubious for Saul to run around Auschwitz like a player in a first-person shooter game. But he’s prey here, not a predator, and he’s well aware of it.
What’s more problematic is Nemes’ flirtation with sentimentality. It would be going too far to say the director is using the Holocaust as a pretext, but what really seems to be on his mind is Saul’s desire to do right by his son (whether real or imagined) via Jewish ritual. The Jewish-American market is too small — and, probably, too liberal and secular — to have “faith-based” films aimed at it (although the Israeli “Fill the Void,” made by a female Orthodox director and released by Sony Pictures Classics a few years ago might qualify); however, practicing Jews might respond particularly strongly to this film.
Even in Auschwitz, Nemes suggests, there are moments of happiness. Fortunately, he does no more than make the suggestion before going back to the film’s regular rhythm of unpleasure and culminating in an emotionally devastating ending.
SON OF SAUL| Directed by László Nemes | In Hungarian, Yiddish and German with English subtitles | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Dec. 18 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St.; filmforum.org | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St.; lincolnpla