Son Of Saul strives to expand the language of Holocaust films

PARIS • How do you find a fresh perspective on the Holocaust? In his first feature, Son Of Saul, Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes chose to depict the enormity through the specific. For most of the 107-minute fiction film, the camera remains fixed on the face of one inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau as he races around the death camp trying to bury a boy he believes is his son.

The film, which opens in the United States on Friday, won the grand prize, or second place, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, rare for a first-time director, and has set off intense debates among critics about the moral implications of Nemes' aesthetic choices. The film is Hungary's entry in the foreign- language Oscar race, where it has been gaining momentum after strong receptions at the Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals.

Nemes, whose grandparents lost family members at Auschwitz, said he had been frustrated with Hollywood's often schmaltzy renderings of the Holocaust, with their insistence on finding heroes and uplifting stories - he singled out Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) as a prime example - and said he had wanted to make something new.

"We definitely try to widen the grammar of film language with this film," Nemes, 38, said in a recent conversation via Skype from his home in Budapest. "It doesn't take the existing, widely accepted language for granted."

Instead, he said, he wants to go against the reductive didacticism of television, which he finds rampant, and use film to explore ambiguity. Today, he said, there is a tendency "to make sure that the audience understands continuously and totally, so that means that there's no more journey for the audience, nothing is hidden, everything is explained". He added, "There's nothing magical about it."

Son Of Saul is filmed in long, restless takes, with no soundtrack besides the grim cacophony of a death camp - the slamming of doors, the sifting through possessions - and is set over the course of a day and a half in October 1944. It follows Saul Auslander, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the Jews forced to dispose of the human remains from the gas chambers, as he tries to rescue a dead boy's body from meeting the fate of the ovens.

Nemes wrote the script with his friend Clara Royer, a French novelist, after stumbling on a collection of testimonials by members of the Sonderkommando. The film did not secure any financing from France or Israel - Nemes was an unknown and his subject too risky, he said - and most of the €1.5-million (S$2.3- million) budget came from the Hungarian National Film Fund.

The film plays out on the face of Saul Auslander, a debut film performance by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet whom Nemes met while studying at New York University's film school. During the 28-day shoot, he had Rohrig rehearse for hours before filming takes, three to four minutes each, with a 35mm camera placed about 50cm from his face.

"I had to be super-focused, because every little bit of change" mattered, Rohrig, 48, said. "Like on the surface of water - even if you blow the water, you can immediately see, it shows everything."

Rohrig, who took leave from his job teaching Jewish studies at a Brooklyn private school to promote the film, volunteers for a Jewish burial society. He spent months visiting Auschwitz as a student in Poland in the 1980s and wrote a book of poems about it. He said he regarded the Sonderkommando as victims, not perpetrators, adding that they were the only Jews in the camp to understand that they faced certain death.

Writing about Son Of Saul in The New York Times from Cannes, critic Manohla Dargis called the film "a radically dehistoricised, intellectually repellent movie", and said that the focus on Saul comes at the expense of broader context.

Nemes said his aim had been to narrow the scope of the film to capture the vastness of the Holocaust. "Because it takes place much more in the imagination than on screen," he said in a conversation in Paris this fall. "Whereas when you show frontally, you only reduce the scope of it. So making it small actually makes it much bigger."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Son Of Saul strives to expand the language of Holocaust films'. Print Edition | Subscribe