Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, first-time filmmaker László Nemes’ shattering Holocaust drama is about trying to hold on to the smallest shred of humanity in the midst of the most inhumane chapter in history. Géza Röhrig, a newcomer himself whose day job in real life is teaching Jewish studies at a Brooklyn private school, stars as Saul Auslander. His performance is searing and unshakeable. Saul is a Hungarian Jew who works with an Auschwitz “Sonderkommando” unit–a special group of concentration camp prisoners who sort through the belongings of those marked for death and dispose of their corpses like hell’s janitors. In return, their own executions are delayed. From the opening scene of the film, Nemes and Röhrig push the audience into the infernal abyss with them. We see Saul silently ushering a new group of arrivals into the showers, where Nazi camp workers promise them hot meals, jobs, and pay. The expression on Saul’s face is utterly deadpan. Who knows how many times he’s heard these same lies? Within moments we hear banging on the shower doors, muffled cries of anguish. Through it all, Saul’s face doesn’t change. The screen goes black.
It’s impossible to be a lover of cinema without having been down this road before in films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist. But Nemes is telling his story in a revolutionary new way–and it’s devastating. There’s no room for sentimentality or conventional Hollywood narative in his film. It has the raw, sickening force of a documentary we watch through spread fingers. As Saul clears the lifeless bodies out of the gas chamber, there’s one who’s still breathing, clinging to life. It’s a young boy. And Saul, whether it’s something he imagines or if it’s in fact the case, recognizes the boy as his son. The Nazi doctors put the child out of his misery. And Saul becomes obsessed with stealing his body from the morgue, finding a rabbi amongst the camp’s prisoners, and giving the boy a proper Jewish burial. He’s grappling for some sense of moral righteousness, one act that can cleanse himself of the sins he’s been forced to commit in order to stay alive. For here on, his own survival becomes secondary – something any parent would be able to understand.
Nemes shoots his film’s grim scenes with an unsparing matter-of-factness that mirrors the businesslike nature of the Nazi genocide. The result is both harrowing and carries a weight that’s almost too much to bear. Röhrig’s performance, with his numb, haunted thousand-yard stare, in a way almost defies description. In a largely silent role, this stunning actor makes you feel every ounce of Saul’s desperation with just the look in his eyes. I’m not going to lie–as easy as it is to appreciate Nemes and Röhrig’s achievements, Son of Saul is an extremely difficult film to watch. But there’s a moment at the end of the film that hints at something like grace, as fleeting as it may be. Son of Saul is more than just a heartbreaking story about a father’s act of love in the midst of chaos. It’s the rarest kind of moviegoing experience: an absolute masterpiece. A