Camera Spiel
By Adam Nayman

Son of Saul
Dir. László Nemes, Hungary, Sony Pictures Classics

Brilliance in filmmaking is so rare that it ought not to be underrated. So what of Son of Saul? Feted with a Grand Prix at Cannes by a jury that knows from prodigies—members Joel Coen and Xavier Dolan having each already dominated the Croisette at ages where most directors are paying their dues—38-year-old László Nemes checks all the wunderkind boxes. He traveled to New York from his native Hungary to study and perfect his craft; he apprenticed with long-take maestro Béla Tarr; his feature debut is a hugely accomplished and evidently uncompromised piece of work. Here, it would seem, is a born filmmaker. But while many are eager to christen his maiden voyage a masterpiece, there is something to the cries of dissent from the other side.

The skeptical notes have been sounded by major critics like Dennis Lim and Manohla Dargis, who see in Son of Saul a flexing of cinematic muscle unbecoming of a film about the Holocaust. “Intellectually repellent,” was the verdict of the latter, whose New York Times Cannes dispatch took pains to give credit where it was due for the film’s “meticulously lighted, composed and shot” mise-en-scène—a description which, it must be said, is entirely accurate. Opening on a deceptively verdant blur of green that is quickly blotted out by human bodies in greyed-out concentration camp regalia, Son of Saul challenges and mesmerizes the viewer’s attention for its duration. Like nobody less than the Dardenne brothers, Nemes demonstrates a facility for blocking and camera moves that activate screen space rather than simply describing it. By the time the initial, wavering image stabilizes on the hard features of Géza Röhrig as Saul Auslander—a sonderkommando (Jewish concentration prisoners forced to work in the death chambers) in Auschwitz circa 1944—it’s clear that the director has us right where he wants us.

That authorial sweet spot is, always, proximate to Saul, whose movements through the camp—in and out of its different compounds and corners—double as the engine of the film’s narrative drive. In the prologue, Saul is on clean-up duty outside the gas chambers, and so we’re right there with him; because he remains on the right side of the iron door that closes behind the prisoners who’ve been herded inside naked, we stay there too, watching him listen to the screams that bleed through the metal. We’re inches away from a kind of video-game, first-person subjectivity, but the slight distance Nemes maintains from the character allows us to see him as a protagonist, rather than a surrogate. But it also manipulates the point of view in another way. Things that would be clearly visible to Saul appear to us as indistinct shapes strewn throughout the frame.

“These filmmaking choices,” writes Dargis, “transform all the screaming, weeping condemned men, women and children into anonymous background blurs.” This observation is at once incontestable and a bit slippery. Considering the meticulousness that it takes to make a movie look this way, mightn’t we wonder if the blurriness of the backgrounds in this film isn’t exactly the point? The plot of Son of Saul develops out of its namesake’s desire—or more accurately, his obsessive-compulsion—locate a rabbi amongst the inmates to provide funeral rites for a young boy whose body he extracts from the pile of corpses outside the gas chamber. As the film goes along, we come to understand that he thinks this slender, physically indistinct child is his son. (One way to see this set-up is as Life Is Beautiful in reverse).

There is an intriguing ambiguity here, as the dialogue and acting points toward the possibility that Saul is either mistaken (the boy is not his son) or mad (he has no son) or else knowingly self-deluding (the funeral rites will be entirely symbolic or cathartic). The character’s willingness to not only endanger himself, but many, many others in the search for a rabbi suggests that, whatever the validity of his quest, he’s undertaking it with blinders on—in which case the distressed visibility of the action around him has an insidiously figurative quality. He’s lost the ability to see anybody other than himself as a human being.

I’m willing to give Nemes the benefit of the doubt here, and Son of Saul doesn’t lack for moments that suggest its maker is interested in the politics of perception. At one point, Saul runs interference for a fellow sonderkommando who is surreptitiously filming the events at the camp with a contraband film camera—an act of documentation rooted in historical fact (the footage smuggled out of concentration camps helped to get America involved in World War II) and yet presented self-reflexively, as a commentary on Nemes’s own practice. At times, the fleetingness of Saul’s own vision dictates his actions—he goes chasing after people he’s only seen for a second, or strains to pick out faces amongst a crowd. It’s a cliché to say that an actor works with his eyes, but Röhrig’s performance here really is ocular—his dark, deep-set pupils become tinted windows to the character’s soul.

As choreography and craftsmanship, Son of Saul is impeccable; where it stumbles is in the increasingly bogus relationship between the whirling maelstrom of its surfaces and the rickety dramatic structures underneath. To once again invoke the Dardennes: in their best films, reality feels stretched over the top of the plotting like a drumhead—the moments where little bits of narrative armature jut through the skein are noticeable because the whole contraption is typically air tight. The point is not that the Dardennes are above dramatic contrivance, or even that they avoid it; it’s that they’re geniuses at submerging their blueprints. Thus in their 2002 film The Son, when Olivier Gourmet’s carpenter spends the first thirty minutes of the film peeking suspiciously at a workshop apprentice he recognizes as the killer of his own son, the sheer unlikeliness of the scenario is overwhelmed by the Dardennes’ carefully torqued presentation of events—the field of vision expands and contracts as the intimacy of the scenario opens out into wider implications about guilt and forgiveness.

Son of Saul isn’t quite so airtight. The last thing that a film set in this time and place should feel is familiar, and yet quite apart from the fact that Auschwitz is an inherently routinized environment—cycles of preparation and head counts every evening—Nemes’s script hits its concentration-camp movie marks with off-putting precision. The film exploits our dread by dragging out the inevitable staging of mass-execution—here done outdoors at the edge of a fiery pit, an apocalyptic vision—and stokes suspense by implying that a sonderkommando uprising is in the offing. Like any dutiful thriller, Son of Saul builds to an extended action set piece in which the protagonist dodges shrapnel, while all around him people die. Even the surprises are predictable. A late revelation about the rabbi that Saul has gone to harrowing lengths to locate and protect is telegraphed in a way that says more about a filmmaker’s desire for dramatic irony than some larger idea of fate.

Son of Saul’s final, forest-set sequences recall—perhaps deliberately—Elem Klimov’s genuinely scarring Come and See (1985), a hallucinatory account of the Nazi occupation of Belarus built out of the same sort of agile, run-on tracking shots favored by Nemes (another possible inspiration: the cinema of Aleksei German). It’s okay that Nemes directs like a keen student in thrall to his various masters: great debuts are often derivative. But what’s unclear—as blurry as all those bodies—is what’s being added to the history of Holocaust cinematic depiction beyond the intensity of the visual presentation, or if that intensity is an end unto itself. What does it mean to make a movie about a concentration camp as a piece of “extreme” cinema? If films as disparate as Night and Fog (1955), Shoah (1985), World of Glory (1991), and Schindler’s List (1993), all of which are either evoked or copied here, can be said to have contributed in different ways to our understanding of the Holocaust, it may be because they are all in some ways works of distance: Resnais’s montage, Lanzmann’s reportage, Andersson’s allegory, and Spielberg’s elegy all oblige us to take a kind of long view.

By contrast, Son of Saul’s insistence on real-time tension means that it’s deliberately cut off from considerations of the bigger picture; what it theoretically gains in trade is a sense of authenticity, which becomes increasingly presumptuous in light of its heavy-handed storytelling and basic lack of dramatic believability. Like Samuel Maoz’s acclaimed—and by now mostly forgotten—Lebanon (2012), an Israeli war film confined entirely to the interior of a tank, Son of Saul offers ostentatious formalism as an entry point into impossibly complicated issues of history and representation. Nemes’s style is undeniable, but it might also just be a brilliant disguise: the handed-down vestments of an ascendant yet fundamentally unclothed emperor.