The Holocaust movie as a genre has become — pardon the overused expression — singularly problematic. Exemplified most notably by “Schindler’s List,” which focused on an apolitical businessman who gradually decides he must save the lives of his Polish Jewish workers, the classic Holocaust film has come to mean a few readily identifiable tropes, including improbable heroes, the fight for survival, carefully arranged tableaus of emaciated bodies and the inevitable vista of barracks, with ominous wisps of smoke rising from the crematorium chimneys.
These images have become so ubiquitous that they’ve taken on a rote, ritualistic quality, the reenactments almost obscene in their attention to fetishistic detail. There are at least 11 million stories to be told from the carnage of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal ambitions during World War II, counting the ghastly end game of the Final Solution. Is it possible for a filmmaker to tell them with any kind of freshness and vigor, to jolt viewers out of their perceived familiarity and into the dread, terror and confusion of the experience itself?
With “Son of Saul,” first-time writer-director László Nemes delivers his answer in the brilliant and shattering affirmative. A classically simple story, told through an elegant visual language as bold as it is thoughtful, this is an important film not just in content but in form. Finally, a cinematic genre heretofore mired in pietistic melodrama and safe aesthetic distance has been blown open and virtually reinvented, even the well-known contours of its subject matter reinvested with urgency, meaning and mournful honesty.
“Son of Saul” begins in a jumbled blur until its protagonist, Saul (Géza Röhrig) walks quickly into focus; the camera stays on him as he moves through activity that the audience hears rather than sees. Over the course of an extraordinary single take, we follow Saul through what we will discover is Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who were forced to aid in disposing of the remains of gas chamber victims. Of his myriad unsavory duties, Saul must help remove corpses from the gas chamber, and it’s during the acquittal of this task that he discovers the body of a young boy. For reasons made clear in the movie, Saul decides to do whatever he can to secure a proper burial for the child, including a recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayers for the dead.
“Son of Saul,” then, is a classic man-on-a-mission film, following its single-minded protagonist through a roughly 36-hour period as he navigates the geographical and bureaucratic maze of the camp to subvert its impersonal machinery of dehumanization. That plot is compelling enough, but Nemes — who got his start working on the films of the avant garde director and Hungarian countryman Béla Tarr — has gone to extraordinary lengths to render it with immediacy and radically novel technique. “Son of Saul” was filmed in the almost square 1.33 aspect ratio, meaning that the image is more akin to a picture frame than a widescreen epic. Saul takes up most of the frame, the intensity of his gaze meeting our own with disarming directness, the camera seeing only what he sees right in front of him, or over his shoulder. This shallow focus results in some of the most grotesque scenes of “Son of Saul” being staged as blurry images on the margins, artifacts of Saul’s own peripheral perception. The result is that what audiences have been inured to over years of literalistic recreations is more unsettling and grievous than ever.
Röhrig, who isn’t a professional actor but a poet and author, takes control of “Son of Saul” from the time he arrives on screen, leading viewers through a nightmare of cacophony, confusion and cynicism with speed and unwavering focus. Although Saul has the impassive demeanor of a man steeled to the horrors around him, Röhrig infuses him with somber expressiveness and compact, commanding presence. It’s a riveting performance with a film that rigorously avoids cheap sentiment but nonetheless brims with grief and moral outrage.
Those feelings take hold at the outset of “Son of Saul,” when a new group of prisoners is told that they will be put to work “after a hot shower and soup,” the brazen lie landing with a sickening thud. In addition to the magnificent visuals — which recall the cinematographer Gregg Toland’s work with Orson Welles in their use of shallow focus and layered composition — Nemes has created a meticulously constructed sound design with which to bring the inchoate madness of Auschwitz into sharp, painfully legible relief.
Nemes’s most revolutionary choice in “Son of Saul” is to portray the most wrenching truths of the Holocaust just off-center, a decision that in another artist’s hands might have been cowardly, not to mention morally corrupt. Thanks to his taste, rigor and superb sense of control, Nemes manages to create images that are both discreet and graphic, respectful and confrontational, inspiring and unsparing. We may experience “Son of Saul” through its title character’s own desperate, ultimately despairing eyes, but it’s Nemes’s gaze that we adopt as our own. Even at its most oblique and deeply anguished, that gaze never looks away.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema . Contains disturbing violence and some nudity. In Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, Russian and German with subtitles. 107 minutes.