Laszlo Nemes’s debut feature, Son of Saul, “is as grim and unyielding a depiction of the Holocaust as has yet been made,” declares Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Boldly courting the kind of debate about how (or whether) the Nazi death camps should be depicted that dates back at least as far as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), Son of Saul is likely to draw admiration and outrage alike: Does its uncompromising restraint and formal rigor serve as a corrective to the sensationalism and sentimentality favored by Hollywood, or does it merely substitute one form of exploitation for another?”
“Set over a 36-hour period in October 1944, Son of Saul hews to the perspective of Saul Auslander [Géza Röhrig], a fictional member of a Sonderkommando unit,” writes Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times. “One day, Saul thinks he recognizes his lost son among the dead to be cremated, and his obsessive efforts to bury the boy puts him in conflict with prisoners who are plotting a rebellion…. For verisimilitude, Mr. Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer drew on survivor accounts as well as writings that prisoners buried in the earth and that were discovered years later. Rather than offer a broad view of the camp, as many past movies of the Holocaust have, Son of Saul sticks close to its protagonist with very dynamic, very mobile camerawork and limits our focus to what he is looking at.”
“Nemes’s formal approach—shallow focus, close-cropped shots that at times come queasily close to adopting the vantage point of a first-person video game—mirrors the protagonist’s blinkered perspective in a provocative way,” writes Ben Kenigsberg. “Is Saul’s search for a rabbi an act of supreme selfishness, blinding him to the moral imperative of helping others survive (and even to an uprising)? Or is it an act of decency that stands apart—aesthetically as well as morally—in an environment that’s already beyond hope?”
Also at RogerEbert.com, Barbara Scharres makes note of the 1:33 aspect ratio: “The boxy film frame is rendered even more claustrophobic through the use of camera lenses that provide no depth of field.”
“Shot (and shown in Cannes) on 35mm, often in sickly greens and yellows and with deep shadows, [Matyas] Erdely’s cinematography is one of the film’s major assets,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter, “but it wouldn’t be half as effective without the soundwork, which plays a major role in suggesting what is happening around Saul, with audiences often forced to rely on the sound to imagine the whole, horrible picture.”
“By any standards,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is really remarkable, a film with the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See—which has surely inspired the film’s final sequence—and perhaps also Lajos Koltai’s Hungarian film Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom director Laszlo Nemes was for two years an assistant, but notably without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is clearly concerned at some level to exert the conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.”
Sight & Sound editor Nick James: “Nemes goes out of his way—to the extent of having big choreographed epic scenes of huge crowds, vehicles, costumes, gas ovens, burnings and all sorts of vileness going on only at the edges of the frame—to avoid what we might call holocaust porn, those films that seek solace in the iconography of sacrifice and in the anti-glamor of concentration-camp tourism. And the soundtrack and the lack of foreknowledge of what danger might be about to affect our central figure from outside the film’s narrow viewpoint wears you down, and you feel your own forbearance slipping away because the frantic push/pull between slaughter and survival just won’t stop.”
Updates: “Nemes constructs the movie… out of long, energetic, complicated handheld takes, executed with razor precision and marked by continually shifting focus and the itching movement of the characters,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “It’s technically impressive as a thriller, an attempt at portraying the Holocaust, and as a vision of Hell; the camera sticks close to the Sonderkommandos as they keep moving from task to task, the growing piles of bodies appearing as little more than flesh-colored lumps of bokeh in the smeared background of the frame.”
At the Dissolve, Mike D’Angelo argues that, in this context, “the moral dilemma of a single individual feels almost irrelevant. It’s as if Saving Private Ryan, rather than being a brutal, sensorial replication of what it was like to land on Normandy Beach on D-Day, had chosen to concoct some maudlin story about Tom Hanks and his platoon searching for the son of one grieving mother, and telling him to ‘earn this.’ We would have been deprived of the greatest war movie ever made.”
“The weakest aspect of the film is Nemes’s script,” finds Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “The film puts you on such a visceral ride that it’s only once you’ve exited that the narrative bothers you. This is another film that prizes Jewish insurrectionists while the herded doomed go forth, faceless and anonymous.”
“Son of Saul may not quite measure up against the very best Holocaust films,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, “but it will surely go down as one of the most affecting portraits of fatherhood in recent memory…. [W]e could well be witnessing the arrival of a major new force in Hungarian cinema.”
Updates, 5/17: “My eyes were sore for a long time after watching, such is the effect of this intense requirement to hold onto a single figure in the frame as he pushes through the world with a camera latched itself onto him, careening into and around camp’s monstrosities,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “Saul’s objectives are dolled out like waypoints in a game: find the body, bring the body into hiding, find a rabbi, bring the rabbi to the body.” And “so much detail and labor is gleaned on the margins of this terminal, desperate escapade—ashes of the dead pitched in the river are a particularly jolting reveal—with the intense, spatially confused delirium of the handheld travels up and down and around, that Son of Saul brutally, obscenely conveys a truly demeaned existence, and a profound, ghastly psychic energy.”
“By approaching his material through a purely experiential style that purposely eschews psychology, he has crafted a towering landmark for filmic fictionalizations of the Holocaust,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “As a viewing experience, it is relentlessly harrowing, bordering on the traumatizing. Yet, while Son of Saul dares to delve even further into the horror than the majority of Holocaust films, never once does it so much as threaten to slip into exploitative territory.”
For Tim Grierson, writing for Paste, “the true star of Son of Saul is its technical achievement, which is considerable. It’s not simply that Nemes utilizes bravura long takes that are extensively choreographed but utterly naturalistic—it’s that the technique accentuates the immediacy (and, hence, the horror) of the concentration camps.”
Updates, 5/18: “Nothing in Son of Saul is engineered for pathos,” notes the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. “In other words it’s a very different experience than Schindler’s List, with a far harsher, truer notion of heroism in hell.”
“A day and a half after watching it, I’m still having flashbacks,” writes Vulture‘s Jada Yuan. “What Son of Saul reveals in excruciating minute after excruciating minute is that, for this man who is all but dead, a single act of morality and religious tradition—however reckless and potentially fatal—is his only chance for survival.”
Updates, 5/20: For the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey, “the infernal intensity of his chosen style recalls Russian pictures as much as it does Tarr’s—the likes of, say, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun (2005) or Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog (2013).” Saul is “almost too ruthless an achievement for its own good, in a way. It pushes its vision to the bitter end, eschewing emotion, reflection, or intellectual framing as if banned at gunpoint from any such lapses.”
Names “has to strike a tricky balance between verisimilitude and an acknowledgement that not even a hint of the true horror can be conveyed on screen,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “With the latter in mind, he has, perhaps wisely, decided not ask his actors to lose significant weight. This remains a work of high artifice.”
Kong Rithdee for the Bangkok Post: “Son of Saul is tight, precise and technically composed to achieve the overwhelming effect of horror—the near-stampede at the mass graves, the howling victims horded into the chambers—are assaultive and almost impossible to bear. I mean, it’s impressive filmmaking, but if Son of Saul wanted us to find a faint glimpse of humanity in what looks and feels like hell, we didn’t. Or I didn’t.”
The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard interviews Röhrig.
Update, 5/22: Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn talks with Nemes.
Updates, 5/23: Writing for Criterion, Colin MacCabe notes that “in thirty years of attending this festival I cannot remember any other film that has sparked such long and detailed arguments.” Further in:
There is to my mind almost no doubt that Nemes is a great director. It is a long time, if ever, since I have seen a first-time film crackling with such cinematic intelligence…. It is impossible, however, to watch the film without confronting the still burning critical issue of how one can represent the mass extermination campaign of the Nazis from 1942 onward…. The choice of story is undoubtedly central. The burial of the dead is perhaps the most obvious way that humans distinguish themselves from other animals. We have in Sophocles’s classic tragedy Antigone a fundamental statement of how care for the dead overrides all other social relations. For those who love Son of Saul, it is this choice of story that makes the film so gripping a narrative. For those who have reservations, the problem of the story is that it suggests a redemption that effectively stops us thinking about Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historical event. I expect that the argument will spread from Cannes as the film is released worldwide.
In Film Comment‘s first Cannes roundtable, Jonathan Romney suggests that “one of the ideas that we always hold onto about the Holocaust which is very sort of reassuring, is the idea that among the victims there was some sort of solidarity and people were able to reach out to each other emotionally, and this suggests that the horror and the oppression was so complete that even that became impossible and is now isolating people, making victims into Sonderkommando executioners and then making executioners back into victims. And it’s just a genuinely horrific—and I think very, very lucid—rigorous rethinking of what it means to think about the Holocaust cinematically.”
Further into the conversation, Marco Grosoli: “I think what is essential is the testimony of the Holocaust, not its representation, which are two distinct things. When you consider the film as a testimony of the Holocaust, you already have in mind a possible addressee, so the issue that it tackles is not really how to represent the Holocaust but to what extent is it conceivable to want a testimony of the Holocaust at any price. It has such an outstanding pace and obviously spectacularizes the Holocaust, but at the same time, by means of the things that the main character does and thinks, it kind of implies that anything can be sacrificed for the sake of the testimony, and of course the immorality itself falls within this ‘anything.’ So in a way it says, ‘Okay, I am immoral because I spectacularize the Holocaust,’ but on the other hand it’s true because everything can sacrificed—including morality itself—in order to provide a testimony of it.”
At PopMatters, Steven Zeitchik talks with Nemes.
Update, 6/6: Vladislav Davidzon profiles Röhrig for Tablet: “That this role fell to a former kindergarten teacher is a fact no less remarkable than anything else about the movie. Röhrig explained that he and Nemes knew each other from Hungarian film circles, and other actors offered the part wanted more money. The man whose performance carried one of greatest films of the year at Cannes is a semi-amateur, whose last acting experience in a Polish film was several decades ago, when he was in his early twenties.”
Update, 6/13: “Nemes is without question a gifted technician,” grants Dennis Lim, writing for Artforum, “but this brazen act of showboating seems less a considered challenge than a glib response to the vast body of writing and thinking on the representability of the Holocaust, beginning most obviously with Jacques Rivette’s attack on the use of the tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo. For better or more likely worse, Son of Saul is a film that will spawn a thousand think pieces.”
Update, 7/8: For the Notebook, Amir Ganjavie has taken part in a roundtable interview with Nemes.