Son of Saul drops us into one of the pits of hell. Saul (played by Geza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando in the German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in 1944. As a Jew, Saul's life and those of his fellow inmates on the work detail are worth nothing. They have been temporarily spared only in order to provide labor, doing the very worst jobs in the camp — such as prying apart the corpses in the Gaskammer after the doors are opened, putting the bodies in carts, and loading them onto elevators for the crematorium — until they themselves drop dead. The proposition is: What would you do to survive for another few days?
Director László Nemes films the action in long takes, with a jittery handheld camera in short focus, to emphasize the chaos. The audio racket is intense. All the tasks are performed at top speed, amid screams and curses, with the omnipresent threat of instant death from an SS guard's pistol for the slightest reason, or no reason at all. To hesitate for a second is to invite a beating, or worse. And yet in the disassembly lines of the death factory there exists the same hierarchy of brutality and small extorted favors as in any prison. That is how Saul is able to act on his inspiration when he comes across the body of young teenage boy, sidetracked to the autopsy room.
The boy reminds Saul of his own son so much that he risks everything in order to give the unknown youth a full religious burial, complete with rabbi, in the midst of the helter-skelter. The mission becomes Saul's obsession, to his considerable peril, and involves a shifting cast of characters, from opportunistic Kapos to various doomed innocents to Saul's Hungarian comrades, quietly plotting some form of resistance. Chance, happenstance, the razor-thin difference between life and destruction. Everything focuses on Saul. Even though he interacts with the others, it's as if he stands alone in a whirlwind of death.
Director Nemes (who was educated in France and New York, where he reportedly dropped out of NYU film school), co-screenwriter Clara Royer, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, film editor Matthieu Taponier, sound designer Tamás Zányi, and the Hungarian production's sound crew all deserve maximum praise for making one of the strongest and most penetrating entries in the vast literature of the Holocaust film. Son of Saul takes a different tack than most. No tantalizing hints of hope, very little in-depth characterization, stripped-down dialogue (to fit in with the atmosphere of the camps), a matter-of-fact approach to horror. And yet in Saul's feverish determination to bury the boy in a place in which the only exit is up a chimney, the spirit is one of defiance.
Hungarian-born actor Röhrig, a former rock musician who now lives in the New York City area, published two volumes of poetry on the Shoah before he was cast in the film. In interviews, he indicates that he sees the story of Saul not as an isolated crime against a certain slice of humanity, but as a continuing shame that cuts across time and extends to contemporary moral outrages wherever they occur. Röhrig's performance is one of the finest of 2015. Cataracts of sadness wash over Saul's face for a second or two, before he gets back to the business of staying alive. Through it all, he holds everything tightly inside, only once letting go.
The audience itself is never allowed to relax for a moment. Son of Saul doesn't pause to teach us a lesson or to drive home the pathos with sweeping orchestral music. Instead, its rock-hard essence lingers after the film ends, in our minds. Struggle. Never give up. Salvage the tiniest shred of meaning from the most crushing hardship. Even if you're sick and tired of Holocaust movies, make room for this one.