Son of Saul is not an easy watch. As with any representation of the Holocaust, there are ideas and images that confront us with the actuality of the events they depict. It is the means through which Hungarian László Nemes has crafted his depiction that mediates the confronting nature of his material here.
From the spectacular opening tracking shot, it is immediately apparent we are watching the work of an extremely assured director, especially given Son of Saul heralds his feature debut. And when I say it’s spectacular, I don’t mean by way of CGI wizardry or the like, but in a viscerally arresting and utterly harrowing manner. Despite the impression of chaos that underlies the action, there is an exacting command of everything we see and hear and everything we don’t. What is intended to be within our primary focus – namely Saul (Géza Röhrig) and his intensely captivating face – remains so almost entirely throughout the film. While he dominates the foreground within the shallow depth of field, the ever–roving lens blurs his surrounds necessarily. We can still make out the flesh, the flames, the fire of guns through this obscured vision and what we can’t and don’t wish to see, we can hear. The dense soundscape is layered with children’s cries, screams, brutal commands and a random gunshot. While the effect is claustrophobic and terrifying in the enormity of horror that occurs, what the technique also suggests is how immune to these events Saul has become. The reality of his wretched existence (Saul is a member of the Sonderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners forced to help Nazis murder and dispose of other Jews) has undoubtedly impacted his mental state. The reliability therefore of a narrative so singularly told through Saul’s subjectivity is called into question, yet any confusion complements what’s taking place amid the madness of the Auschwitz–Birkenau camp. Son of Saul is difficult, but powerful and memorable cinema. Rated M. Son of Saul is in cinemas now