The shape of the screen is unusually narrow in “Son of Saul,” the 38-year-old Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’s debut feature. Nearly square, it evokes an earlier era, when all movies looked this way, and also emphasizes the claustrophobia of the story and the setting. We are in a Nazi death camp, and really in it, to a degree that few fictional films have had the nerve to attempt. The camera doesn’t just survey the barracks and the guard towers, the haggard prisoners and brutal guards. It takes us to the very door of the gas chambers, in the close company of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Jewish inmate who is a member of the camp’sSonderkommando (special commando) unit.
Here I should step back a bit, though Mr. Nemes, who favors a hand-held, intimate, in-the-moment shooting style, decidedly does not. The Sonderkommando occupy an especially painful and contested place in the history of the Holocaust. Slave laborers like nearly everyone else in the camps who was not immediately killed, they had the job of shepherding their fellow Jews to their deaths and cleaning up afterward, sorting through clothes, eyeglasses, jewelry and other personal effects and burning the corpses.
They were rewarded for this service with meager privileges that included improved rations and the postponement of their own inevitable deaths. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, where “Son of Saul” takes place, there was a Sonderkommando uprising in 1944, an event that is echoed in parts of the film. After the war, members of the Sonderkommando were shunned by many other survivors because they had, however involuntarily, participated in the slaughter. Some were executed or otherwise punished for collaborating with the Germans.
This larger history is kept outside the frame. Shot mostly in extended close-ups (the skilled director of photography is Matyas Erdely), “Son of Saul” moves rapidly and relentlessly in the present tense, never leaving Saul’s side. Not that we penetrate his thoughts. Mr. Rohrig, a poet and former teacher appearing in his first film, has the intriguing opacity that distinguishes nonprofessional actors. Like Lamberto Maggiorani in“Bicycle Thieves” or Maria Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” he is an indelibly particular, almost spiritually intense, screen presence. His face is hard to read and impossible to forget — a mask of stoicism, anguish, exhaustion and cunning.
Our eyes are trained on Saul, and therefore we don’t see much of what he sees. Mr. Nemes uses shallow focus techniques that blur everything not immediately in front of his protagonist’s face. Though we find ourselves in close proximity to death, we are also detached from it. Human figures are blurred, movements are indistinct, and horrifying sounds — cries, gasps, footsteps, blows — reach us from invisible sources.
This disorientation is meant to convey immediacy, and to signal an uncompromising vision. Mr. Nemes wants to serve the horror raw, to bring us as close as he possibly can to the machinery of murder, to make cruelty palpable. He subscribes to one of the dubious dogmas of post-World War IIaesthetics, namely the idea that the representation of real-life atrocity requires the chastening of artifice, the stripping away of anything that might smack too much of style.
But of course, everything I have said about this movie so far has to do with its formal strategies and visual tactics. To say that “Son of Saul” is a highly stylized, self-conscious and calculating piece of narrative is not to say that it’s a bad movie, only that it’s a movie. And to say it’s a Holocaust movie is not so much to identify its subject matter as to specify its genre. Mr. Nemes may disdain “Schindler’s List” — as every ambitious European art-film director must — but he is very much in its debt.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the mass murder of the Jews seemed to many artists and intellectuals to exist beyond the reach of representation. It was something to be handled with the utmost care and gravity. But art, especially popular art, abhors a vacuum, and the Shoah is, among other things, a rich reservoir of stories, true and speculative. There are works of narrative — like Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” or the novels of Patrick Modiano — that try to measure the gulf between past and present and to document the inadequacy of memory. There are others that try to bridge that gap by recreating or retrieving a sense of what actually happened. “Schindler’s List” remains the best-known — and one of the best examples. And there are some that try to fill the void with fable and fantasy, like “Inglourious Basterds” and “Life Is Beautiful.”
“Son of Saul” belongs more in the third category than the second. It’s a beat-the-clock thriller wrapped around an allegory. Saul witnesses the death of a boy who may or may not be his son, and becomes obsessed with giving the body a proper Jewish burial. He scrambles through the camp, a buzzing hive of hideous and mundane routines, in search of a rabbi. He barters and begs, and his quixotic project intersects with desperate plans for rebellion and escape that other prisoners are hatching. Mr. Nemes orchestrates a tour de force of suspense, a swift symphony of collisions, coincidences and reversals that is almost unbearably exciting.
His skill is undeniable, but also troubling. The movie offers less insight than sensation, an emotional experience that sits too comfortably within the norms of entertainment. This is not entirely the director’s fault. The Holocaust, once forbidden territory, is now safe and familiar ground.
“Son of Saul” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Death everywhere. The film is in Hungarian, German, Yiddish and Polish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.