Inside the Inferno: László Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul’ finds redemption amidst Auschwitz horror

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At the very start of Son of Saul, the camera darts around nervous and uncertain, gulping in a churning sea of faces before finally lighting on one in close-up and basically never leaving it for the next 107 minutes. This is the drawn, drained-of-emotion face of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando who cart the cadavers of his fellow Jews from gas chamber to crematorium and then clean up for the next execution. For this, he is paid in food rations and a few more months of life.

Dressed in protective coating (a red X on his jacket keeps him from being shot by his Nazi captors), he is discovered in the chaos of work at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the first week of October 1944. With Allied forces closing in, the executions have gone into double-time, and he is shown—for a good ten minutes of extended tracking shots—escorting a fresh trainload of prisoners from the station to the changing room, where clothing is neatly placed on hooks with identifying numbers and they are then herded en masse, nude and confused, to be “showered.” As soon as the doors are bolted shut, he robotically returns to rummage through the shed clothing for valuables while they scream and gasp their last off-camera.

Son of Saul is, as you can gather, a deep dive into Dante’s Inferno—and quite possibly the most indelible and immersive ever in the already overcrowded field of concentration-camp dramaturgy. This is the stunning first film of 38-year-old Hungarian director László Nemes, who, with Clara Royer, concocted a spare screenplay, which is little more than throwaways that amplify the horror of it all.

Unusual for a debut picture, it premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning rhapsodic reviews and three awards (among them, the coveted Grand Prix) and then went on to highlight festivals in Toronto and Norway. Currently, the Sony Pictures Classics release is Hungary’s official submission for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film—and it should win, given the Academy’s pronounced partiality for the Holocaust topic, lest we forget.

Which is what motivated Nemes to tackle such an incredibly unwieldy and sensitive subject in the first place. “With each generation,” he explains, “the Holocaust slips farther away from us, losing meaning and emotion. Time just does that. I thought that we needed to be reminded in as visceral and immersive a way as possible.”

Nemes’ mother, who had lost her grandparents to the Holocaust, unsparingly introduced the subject to him as a five-year-old, and the die was cast. “It gnawed on me for decades, and when I decided to become a filmmaker, I knew what my first film would be about. I just didn’t know how to do it. I needed to find some kind of angle.”

The angle materialized from reading about the grim duties of the Sonderkommando, who spent their last days, humiliated and morally compromised, as custodians of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution. This gave him his deepest, most intimate level of entry.

“When I first read about the crematory workers, it transported me as a reader into the very heart of the extermination machine—the here and now of it. I was literally in the shoes of a human being within the killing machine. That made such a strong impression on me I knew the film would have to take place inside this machinery.

“You start to wonder about how limiting the possibilities are for someone in that situation, how little he can see or perceive, what little information he can have. He’s living on borrowed time anyway. There’s no telling what the morning will bring.”

Getting a firm handle on a subject as awesomely uncontainable as the Holocaust would seem to be an impossibility, but Nemes handles it deftly with a conceit that borders on the poetic: A young boy miraculously survives the gas chamber in the opening scene and, although he is promptly put to death, Saul claims the youth as his son. Suddenly, the mission in what’s left of his life—and the focus for the rest of the film—is to save the body of the boy from an autopsy and the furnace long enough to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give his “son” a proper burial.

The demands of playing Saul, a somnambulist numbed by his work who must still engage the audience’s empathy, were considerable, and Nemes weighed them heavily before deciding on casting Géza Röhrig, a friend who had done a little acting in Hungarian films during the 1990s and subsequently became a well-known poet.

“For years, we were thinking of using a traditional professional actor,” admits the director, “but it soon became evident Saul would already be obsessed and have a very focused way of being. It was a long process, but that’s what guided me to Géza.”

Being pegged a professional actor didn’t sit at all well with Röhrig. “I do not think I’m professional or unprofessional,” he confesses. “I just try and interpret.”

As a result, his Saul wears his work in every wrinkle. “The most demonic act of the Nazis was to make Cains out of Abels,” Röhrig contends. “They formed these special squads and forced them to assist in the killing process and, by doing so, deprived them of even the solace of being innocent. They dragged them down to the rock bottom of their morality. In order to destroy God’s image in us, you have to undo our humanity because that’s God’s image in us. Once that’s gone, then they have succeeded in doing their very worst. They have made the Jews their partners-in-crime and forced them, under the threat of death, to usher their own brothers and sisters into the gas chamber and dirtied them with their own people’s blood.”

Whether Saul’s paternity is real or imagined is never answered, but this becomes almost beside the point, given the single-minded fervor he invests in burying the boy properly. “It’s a symbolic, par excellence human act,” says Nemes. “There are a couple of things that, I think, are considered universally moral: to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to bury the dead. No matter who you are, that’s what you do. We don’t let our fellow human beings just literally decompose. Only animals do that.

“So, even in a place where death is so omnipresent—basically, it vanishes from sight because it’s everywhere and every death has become the same—Saul finds a chance to assert his humanity. The only reason he noticed this boy is because he’d survived the gas chamber. That’s the only reason he’s different from the thousands of others.

“To my mind, Saul is a happy man because he has found at last a purpose. There are two ways of resistance open to him. One is to revolt and get out of there. The other—to me, the higher form of resistance—is to disregard the rules and bury the boy. The first level of resistance is legitimate, but it’s just about saving the body. ‘Let’s make sure the next breath is not from the gas.’ Saul is not concerned about this survival. If he has a choice, he prefers to save his soul as opposed to his body.”

As a visual architect of human spectacle, Nemes is the anti-DeMille of directors, squandering his horde of extras on fractions of frames or blurring them beyond recognition. “I used the old-time Academy ratio, which came before CinemaScope,” he explains. “It makes it seem as if Saul is staggering through a surreal nightmare.”

Saul either in close-up or in handheld, over-the-shoulder shots fills most of the shallow-focused, almost square frames composed by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. This keeps the horror at bay, allowing bits of it to seep through at the edges.

“We didn’t want to make a spectacle out of the background,” Nemes declares. “We wanted to restrict the scope of what you see because we focus on one individual in the middle of this mess, not describe all kinds of people and points of view. We felt if you describe a lot of things about the camp, you end up diminishing the fact of it.

“The organic quality of the film was guided by the strategy of immersing you in the here and now, conveying something of the impossibility of knowing what will come around the corner in the next second. These limitations had to be integrated with the shots, and that’s why we used lots of extended one-, two-, three-minute takes.

“I wanted to show the mixture of chaos and organization that existed in the camp. In the film, you can see more of the organization, but you can’t really see the chaos.”

Completing this partial picture—extending it to action outside of the camera’s range—is the extraordinary sound work of Tamás Zányi. “When I told my sound designer that half the movie was going to be sound, he laughed,” Nemes recalls, “but after five months of post-production just on sound alone, he wasn’t laughing.

“The sound is there to say, ‘If the image is so restrictive, there is always much more.’ With sound, you usually can’t identify its origin. That’s how I imagine the experience of a concentration camp: you cannot hear all the sounds. There’s shouts, gunshots, machinery, human voices. We had eight languages on the film. The chaos of the languages was at the heart of the experience of the concentration camp. The impossibility of communicating easily—that was something I wanted in the film.

“Not only do we hear voices, we hear machinery, and the machinery is almost like a living creature. It’s there breathing all the time, making different noises, hinting at the very organic nature of the killing machine that’s living in the crematorium.”

Son of Saul would be an impossibly hard act for anybody to follow, and that’s profoundly true of a first-time filmmaker going for his second feature. Nemes has a complete change of pace in mind for that—anything would be. Within a year, he hopes to have before the cameras a romance about a Hungarian woman in 1910.