Christian Harting (left) and Geza Rohrig star in “Son of Saul.” The film was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign picture.

‘Son of Saul’ immerses viewer in Holocaust horror

Saul is temporarily alive.

A Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz, he has been designated a Sonderkommando; instead of being killed upon arrival, he was made part of a detail that aids Nazi guards in the process of murdering people at the extermination camp.

By the time we are introduced to Saul, he has been at this for some time, so his eyes are already vacant and his soul already battered. Whatever thin crust of humanity he has left is about to express itself in a gesture that is almost entirely pointless. Except to him.

This specific horror is portrayed in “Son of Saul,” a film that — in its own claustrophobic way — is as astonishing as the big-as-all-outdoors spectacle “The Revenant.” We watch a day and a half in Saul’s life as he goes about the grueling business of herding Jewish prisoners into gas chambers, waiting as they are murdered, and then taking the bodies to the crematorium.

What is extraordinary about “Son of Saul” is that director László Nemes conveys this experience almost entirely in tight proximity to Saul (played by Géza Röhrig). The camera’s gaze never gets more than a few feet from Saul’s perspective; we’re either looking at his face in close-up or at things within arm’s reach. The atrocities that unfold are therefore not in our direct view.

Instead, we see parts of things, or events happening out of focus in the distance. But — in one of the film’s most remarkable tactics — we hear what’s happening. The soundtrack is a chorus of scrapes and crashes and groans, truly a hellish din.

This particular day at Auschwitz is marked by Saul witnessing a boy who briefly and inexplicably survives the gas chamber. But only for a minute. After that, Saul becomes insistent on finding a rabbi in the camp who can provide a ritual burial for this boy — a bewildering fixation, given the brutal slaughter going on.

Saul says the boy is his son, although we can’t be sure of the truth of that. If his sanity is affected, that seems normal under the circumstances: Along with the carnage around them, the Sonderkommando are aware that they are dead men walking, and will be killed and replaced by others within a few weeks, if not days.

In part because of their certain execution, Saul’s fellow Sonderkommando are planning an uprising and escape (there was such a revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944). As they desperately plot, Saul looks for a rabbi, his obsession unbreakable.

“Son of Saul” has had some negative responses (along with its Oscar nomination for best foreign language film), which usually take the argument that to dramatize the Holocaust is inherently vulgar, perhaps obscene.

But Nemes has anticipated that criticism. Most of the drama, and the majority of the violence, is to the side or out of view. Nemes doesn’t exploit the horror of the death camps for narrative punch, he presents it as a day-to-day reality. That is what is so terrible about “Son of Saul”: This was a place where people worked, a factory of death meant to destroy even those it does not literally kill.

Géza Röhrig’s face is frequently the focus of our attention, but he is not an actor in the traditional sense. He is a poet and schoolteacher, raised by a foster family of Hungarian Jews with a direct connection to Auschwitz.

His Saul watches, and absorbs, and sometimes takes grim action, but Röhrig doesn’t give a performance that tells us what to feel. When we watch a skilled actor like Meryl Streep in a Holocaust drama, she will convey emotions and help us identify with a character in a drama. Röhrig offers no consoling technique or emotion, but we do sense his human presence, somewhere in the emotional wreck that Saul has become.

What the movie gives us is immersion in terror, and the stubborn flicker of something like a moral purpose — a flicker all the more moving because it’s in service to something impossible. Saul’s search is absurd. But it’s the only thing that staves off the void.

“Son of Saul” (4 stars)

A claustrophobic but astonishing portrait of a Sonderkommano—a Hungarian Jew forced to aid the Nazis at Auschwitz—looking for some flicker of purpose left in the factory of death. This Oscar-nominated Hungarian film is a remarkable look at a single life in the Holocaust. In Hungarian and German, with English subtitles.

Rating: R, for violence, nudity

Showing: Seven Gables

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