Son of Saul is rightly harrowing, but somehow transcends the barbarity of Auschwitz

The challenge for any film that seeks to ­address the Holocaust is one of scale: László Nemes choses his canvas carefully

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The challenge for any film that seeks to ­address the Holocaust is one of scale. Keeping in mind the persecution and murder of millions is important but it is vital not to allow the audience to become inured to the breadth of that horror. The benchmark in dramatised cinema is Schindler’s List, but even Spielberg couldn’t get the balance quite right between epic and intimate. The most memorable detail from that picture – a child’s red coat singled out in an otherwise monochrome frame – betrayed Spielberg’s inability to reconcile truth with artifice, magnitude with minutiae. Better to restrict oneself from the start to a tiny canvas that will stand for the unimaginable whole.

They don’t come much smaller than the one chosen for Son of Saul, the Hungarian film that won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Even before the movie begins, we can see that the screen’s shape has been foreshortened by the 4:3 aspect ratio, making the image claustrophobically boxed-in. The point-of-view will be equally inhibited, focusing solely on a Hungarian-Jewish man, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), who has been selected to work in the Sonderkommando unit policing fellow prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His haunted, hawklike face is so tightly in shot for most of the film that we can count the pores in his skin. He’s our tour guide in hell.

Saul is among those responsible for overseeing recent arrivals off the trains. In two long, unbroken shots, which keep us almost nose to nose with him, he herds the frightened prisoners across the grass and into the changing rooms where a voice urges them to hurry and undress. Should they dilly-dally, the soup waiting for them on the other side of the showers will go cold. Oh, and they should take care to remember the number of their coat hook.

Into the showers they go. The metal doors are bolted behind them. What follows is one of the most upsetting things I have ever heard in cinema. I say heard, not seen, because there is nothing to see. The changing room is now empty. Saul and his colleagues mustn’t waste any time clearing away the belongings to make room for the next batch.

What makes this day different for Saul is the discovery of a boy of about 11 or 12 who is miraculously still alive after the other bodies have been cleared from the showers. The child doesn’t survive for long but Saul becomes fixated on him. Whether this is his son, as the title suggests, or just a means for him to cling on to his own humanity in the face of the wretched acts he has been forced to commit, the boy becomes his focus to the exclusion of everything else.

He devotes his time to finding a rabbi to perform a proper Jewish burial, and disregards pleas to get rid of the body by his fellow inmates, who are planning an uprising. It’s one of the casual cruelties of the film that the prisoners have taken to terrorising one another in an effort to curry favour with their captors. When one prisoner pressures Saul to give up the body, he responds by promising to expose to the guards the location of the other man’s secret diaries.

It is diaries like those that the writer-director László Nemes used as the basis for his spare, controlled screenplay, which throws us headlong into the hurly-burly of life among the Sonderkommandos without pausing to explain the power structure in the unit, or the topography of the camp. Nemes places strict limits on the flow of information. He reduces atrocities to a blur of activity in the background, and bodies to out-of-focus smudges of peach or pink. Tamás Zányi’s oppressive sound design has a big part to play. As with the gassing in the showers, though, it is our imagination that performs the heavy lifting.

Son of Saul is rightly harrowing, but by mirroring in its shape and structure Saul’s own single-mindedness, it serves as an implicit endorsement of his lunatic mission. Somehow his idealism transcends the barbarity of Auschwitz. It would be unfair to claim that Nemes, a first-time film-maker, has succeeded where Steven Spielberg partly failed. Let’s just say that he chose his canvas more carefully and that he fills it to the edges and beyond. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism