In his most recent novel, The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis describes the Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates put to work in Nazi death camps, quite beautifully. These prisoners were forced to herd new arrivals and clear away lifeless bodies, and in Amis’s words they were “the saddest men in the history of the world”. Son of Saul (★★★★★, cert 15, 107 mins), an award-laden Hungarian drama from debutant director László Nemes, bears out this sentiment with devastating precision, while also making an admirable case for the idea that bravery, rebelliousness and humanity can endure in the face of monstrous evil.
The film begins with a long shot of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, emerging from the woods on the edge of Auschwitz. This initially blurry, distant figure comes right up close to the camera so that his gaunt face is framed in close up. It’s a superb opening in which Nemes establishes both his daring formal aesthetic (the camera remains inches away from Saul and the other characters for the rest of the running time) and his overarching theme. From the statistical blur of six million dead, the film’s focus on one man’s personal tragedy comes to speak powerfully for all of those lives interrupted.
When Saul is sent with his work unit to clear out the pockets of those recently killed in the gas chambers, he watches his son, who has just been brought to the camp, die in front of him. As a mere Sonderkommando, Saul is in no place to attend to his son’s body or say goodbye. Instead, he keeps his head down and gets on with his work. But in that instant Saul resolves to somehow recover his son’s body and give him a proper burial. What unfolds is a kinetic, exhausting thriller that drags its audience along at a furious pace.
The Holocaust has, of course, become a perennial subject for film-makers, but Nemes reimagines its depravity with startling effectiveness by, in the main, keeping the violence at the edge of the screen. The fact that the atrocities remain on the periphery, only to be caught sight of fleetingly, somehow seems to ratchet up the horror, particularly in a deeply unsettling scene depicting a fire-flecked, night-time massacre.
Röhrig is mesmerising as Saul. With breathtaking economy, he simultaneously presents him as a humiliated shell (most movingly when he is forced to perform a Yiddish dance for the amusement of the commandants) and as a steely individual who will stop at nothing to be with his son. We are with him every step of the way, right up to the final coda in which Nemes allows Saul a brief sliver of redemption. It’s a touching and perfectly judged moment. Not a happy ending, just a tiny chink of light in the darkness.
This article first appeared in the April 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.