There's a moment of recognition on Saul Ausländer's face when he sees a boy who's just survived an Auschwitz gas chamber, because that boy may be his estranged son. A Nazi officer cuts that short, finishing what the gas chamber started with his bare hands.
Son of Saul may be the most visceral, intimate take on the Holocaust ever made, and Hungarian-Jewish director László Nemes sets the tone early in what's become the most-hyped foreign film this year—it's the first Hungarian movie to win a Golden Globe and the country's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. It's also Nemes' directorial debut.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando, a special unit of Jewish prisoners in charge of cleaning up the remains of their own people. To give his son a proper burial, Saul searches for a rabbi. Meanwhile, his fellow prisoners are planning their revolt.
Most of the film was shot with a handheld camera, peering over Saul's shoulder as he scrubs viscera from concrete floors or shovels dusty ashes from the furnaces. But the gore is always just out of focus, thanks to an open camera aperture that blurs everything farther away than the length of Saul's arms. Same goes for Saul's Nazi oppressors, whom we know by their brutal and grotesque shouting but rarely see.
The techniques give us Saul's own experience, showing how the human psyche shuts out what it can't handle during a psychological trial that goes beyond trauma.
While many Holocaust movies try to lighten the load of their subject matter by playing to the lowest common denominator of audience expectations, Son of Saul doesn't, and it excels because of what it avoids. It's not a shofar for nationalism, nor an excuse for Allied military fetishism, nor a melodramatic tale of the indomitable human spirit. It's a hauntingly simple story that Nemes packages with intimacy, allowing a new generation of moviegoers to forget what he calls "the 70 years of postwar interpretation, the pity." Instead, Son of Saul gives us the Holocaust as something that can happen in our world, to people like us.
Critic's Grade: A-