There are no sweeping displays of emotions in Son of Saul. Most of story takes place inside the depths of Auschwitz, where Sonderkommando member Saul Ausländer, a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner, disposes of gas chamber victims. With its oppressive atmosphere and minimal plot, the debut feature of director László Nemes offers a restrained but emotionally heavy take on the Holocaust.
One day as Saul prepares the dead for incineration, he sees a boy he believes is his son. Such a scene would evoke stirring recognition in the hands of a less subtle director rather than quiet solidarity, but the audience is kept skeptical. Saul then attempts to secure a proper burial for the boy, risking his life in the process, but the other member of the Sonderkommando remark that he has no son; indeed, without any backstory regarding his former life, we are given no conclusive evidence that Saul and the boy are related.
The film is remarkable for what it leaves out. There are no heartbreaking anecdotes, no flashbacks, and no exposition; a hapless moviegoer who knows nothing about the film might not realize what it is about until several minutes in. There is hardly any Nazi imagery, since most of the interactions shown are among members of the Sonderkommando. Nothing is known about Saul Ausländer’s life. There is no music to guide the audience or hint at what characters are feeling. Even the workings of the crematorium around which the Sonderkommando’s schedule revolves daily are only visible in passing, not so much to downplay the violence as to avoid sensationalizing it.
What one would expect to be a particularly bloody film is really sparing in its gore. Son of Saul is unusual in that its shots are composed almost exclusively of close-ups of Saul, relegating most of the carnage to the periphery of the frame. While viewers are given only glimpses of the cruelty, it is never trivialized. The piles of naked limbs and ash-stained concrete of the chambers play almost counterpoint to Saul’s facial expressions, which are portrayed with hardened stoicism by Géza Röhrig. Not everyone will take favorably to the seasickness-inducing camerawork, which, while appropriate given its subject matter, gives rise to nausea and claustrophobia.
Saul’s efforts are frustrated throughout, and in the end, he never gets to bury his son. Nevertheless, it is the ending to be expected from so sobering a production. The setting’s oppressive atmosphere is magnified by Mátyás Erdély’s affectless cinematography, which combined with Röhrig’s performance makes for a grueling hour and forty-seven minutes. Hungarian author and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertész, criticizing Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, called works of art kitsch if they did not acknowledge the Holocaust’s larger implications, instead reducing it to an isolated act of evil. Saul does not gesture to grand claims, but by stripping away the incidental details of time and geography, it makes Saul’s quest to bury his son more universal, uncompromising, and brutal.