Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Sándor Zsótér

Director: László Nemes

107 minutes

It’s 1944 Poland and Hungarian Saul Ausländer finds himself a prisoner at the dreaded Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. He is forced to be a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners driven into isolation whose job it is to help with the extermination of fellow prisoners; gathering valuable belongings, stripping them, directing them into the gas chambers and dragging the bodies to the ovens. After witnessing a young boy suffocated to death by a Nazi officer, he decides, as an act of attempted self-salvation, to give the boy a proper burial and attempts to find a Rabbi and conceal the boy’s body to stop him being burnt with the rest of the murdered prisoners.

The conundrum for any director of a film depicting such absolute horror is exactly how much to show to its audience. For the fortunate majority of us who cannot possibly even contemplate such things, it’s peculiarly easy to desensitise to proceedings over the course of a feature film. First time director Nemes therefore took the decision to concentrate almost solely on the protagonists face with only fleeting glimpses of the atrocities happening in the background. What this ingeniously does it to give the audience access to proceedings only through the emotional reflections of Saul’s expressions. This could only work with an actor at the absolute top of their game and Röhrig gives a quite stunning performance throughout. An early scene shows Saul shepherding a group of new arrivals, confused and naked, into the gas chambers. As he locks the doors, the screams build in the background and slowly dissipate until they have perished, during which Saul’s face fills the screen until he unlocks the door and starts dragging the bodies back out. His expression is not of horror, anger or regret but of absolute resignation and forced indifference, the power of which feels far more distressing than any gruesome vision of the horror going on within the gas chambers themselves.

Although there are other characters involved in the story; Zsótér’s Dr Nyiszli who attempts to help Saul get access to the boy’s body and Molnár’s revolt-planning Warszawski, they all feel intentionally transient, forcing focus singularly onto Saul’s journey. The increasing obsession with his mission to save the boy’s soul gives the film a fabulous pace and a breathlessness very rarely found in a movie about such dire events.

Son of Saul is a film to be experienced rather than enjoyed, and at times its brutality and cruelty is almost unbearable. Yet the vision of Saul’s remaining seed of humanity vying for sunlight is a flicker of beauty and hope among the unappreciable atrocities. It acts as a timely reminder of just what human-kind at its worst is capable of and will stand up as one of the most important films of recent times.

9 / 10