Starring Géza Röhrig. In Hungarian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A.
The Hungarian film Son of Saul handles the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust with a deft subtlety that’s nothing short of admirable. A mix of dignity, degradation, and mind-numbing sorrow is presented here without a speck of manipulative sensationalism. If there are a couple of minor missteps from a purely dramatic perspective, they are easily forgiven.
Set against the backdrop of a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, the story focuses on Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner in the Sonderkommando, responsible for herding unsuspecting fellow Jews into the gas chambers under the pretence of taking a shower. There, they strip the victims’ clothes of valuables. Later, they remove the bodies—referred to by the Nazi supervisors as “pieces”—and scrub down the gas chambers.
When Saul discovers his dead son in the midst of all this, he decides to risk his own life to give him a proper religious burial. Desperate to find a rabbi before time runs out, Saul will let nothing stand in his way—not even a brewing revolt among the prisoners.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the fictional screenplay—written by Clara Royer and first-time feature director László Nemes—owes a creative debt to 1985’s Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s comprehensive documentary on concentration-camp survivors.
Nevertheless, Nemes brings a fresh perspective to his feature debut, which won the 2015 Grand Prix at Cannes. He uses a masterful sense of restraint as a kind of narrative veil, letting the unbearable tragedy seep through in measured, if undeniably potent, doses. The result makes it possible to watch the unwatchable. And for this alone, Son of Saul is a rare accomplishment.