There can be no doubt that Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul is in some sense one of the greatest feature films made about the Holocaust, even if its greatness lies in the ways in which it challenges the very process of making feature films about the Holocaust, drawing on neorealism and documentary film making instead to craft one of the most visceral depictions of the Second World War that I have ever seen. Whereas most Holocaust films are either about the operation of the concentration camps or of Nazi Germany more generally, here we’re presented with a group of people that has been rarely dealt with outside experimental documentaries: the Sonderkommando, Jews who were tasked with overseeing the last processes at the death camps in exchange for their own temporary immunity. Son of Saul revolves around one of these workers, Saul (Geza Rohrig), who in the course of his duties comes across a corpse that he – supposedly – recognises as that of his own son, leading him to try to achieve something resembling respectful burial without alerting the Nazi authorities to his action. In many ways, however, it feels as if that sentimental narrative kernel is simply there as a point against which Nemes can measure his complete departure from anything resembling social realism, with great swathes of the film playing more as documentary recreation – or straight documentary – than fictional film in a traditional or recognisable sense.
Key to that process is Nemes’ visual style, which sees him training his camera on Saul’s head, usually in close-up, for the majority of the film. Usually, this is one of my least favourite visual strategies: it’s become a kind of generic indie style, or an indie house style, and often seems to be used to create a sense of austere auteurism or uncompromising creativity in lieu of a more flamboyantly idiosyncratic vision. In this context, however, it works beautifully and is critical to the film’s scrupulous and anxious avoidance of anything resembling cathartic dramatic spectacle, with Nemes’ enormous and multifaceted tableaux – virtuosic sequences – playing out in the blurry background or in the camera’s peripheral vision. With an infernal maelstrom always playing around the fringes of things, the result is a strange kind of displaced visceral engagement that immediately draws us into Saul’s grim exclusion of everything outside his immediate environment, not just spatially but temporally as well. Like Saul, it feels as if the camera is living from moment to moment, or deliberately and wilfully excluding anything but the present moment, as the action unfolds in a kind of heightened – and heightening – present tense that is almost unbearable by the last couple of scenes
With that kind of atmosphere, the narrative can afford to be entirely procedural, even as procedure itself is quickly dissociated from any agency or autonomy on Saul’s part. As he traverses his circumscribed world looking for a way to bury his son, the entire procedure of the camp occurs in the background, from the arrival of Jews to the mass disposal of their ashes. From the very first couple of scenes, it is clear that this not a film about prisoners so much as a film about cadavers – whether imminent or actual cadavers seems beside the point – just as all the Jews working in the camp are only living in the understanding that they are always a couple of seconds away from the cadavers they produce and process every day. Devoid of even the most residual sentimentality – it’s a film that puts sentimental treatments to shame – our historical distance from the Holocaust narrows, with the film refusing to allow us to indulge in the illusion that this has all been consigned to the remote past, as well as the more pleasures of period drama and period recreation more generally. Instead, it feels as if this could have happened yesterday, while any backwards reflection is offset by the vague sense that we are witnessing the last, climactic days of the Holocaust – an exponential acceleration towards some unimaginable apocalypse that bleeds into the digital present, accompanied by the dissolution and displacement of space and time typically imagined to precede the arrival of end times. It’s no surprise, then, that the film is also devoid of even the most residual efforts at contriving situations in which the Nazi officers “recognise” the humanity and individuality of their Jewish captives. Instead, the Nazis here uniformly regard the Jews as subhuman – almost another species – rendering them just as alien and unimaginable in their malicious agency to the Jews in turn.
By the end, then, it feels like Son of Saul is a riposte to every fictional Holocaust film ever made – and to the very idea of fictionalising and historicising the Holocaust – aligning it more with experimental works such as Night of Fog and Shoah than with any fictional treatment I’ve ever seen. Indeed, the closest I’ve seen in fictional cinema full stop would have to be some of the neorealist films made in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and in many ways Son of Saul imagines how that neorealist moment might have looked had it taken the Holocaust as its subject matter, when the travails of the Jews were still as fresh upon the face of history as the desecrated cityscapes that the neorealist directors made their own. At the same time, though, the achievement of Son of Saul lies precisely in the way in which it makes it feel as if the Holocaust has just happened, and will always have just happened. Indeed, watching its vortical digital maelstroms made me realise that most Holocaust films are really told from the German point of view – or at least from the perspective of Allied hindsight – insofar as they dwell upon the discipline, order and hierarchy of the Nazi process, all of which is utterly dissolved and dispersed here. Less a study in horror than in the horror of inuring and deadening ourselves to horror, it all makes for an utterly uncompromising vision that feels like a definitive version of events even or especially as it dissociates itself from any one version of events, in what may be the first Holocaust film shot entirely in the present tense.