It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Son of Saul” begins with a long, unbroken shot of mesmerizing intricacy. The year is 1944 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando—prisoners forced to help the Nazis exterminate Jews, thereby delaying their own deaths for a few months—walks toward the camera from far off in the woods before finally coming into focus in the center of the frame. From there, Hungarian director and co-writer László Nemes follows Saul as he goes about his daily work herding new arrivals toward the undressing room and into the gas chamber. They’d been promised hot meals and well-paying jobs, something Saul has heard countless times before. Clearly, none of that is in store for these people.
Nemes stays close, showing us only what Saul sees, photographing him from the back or the side, Dardennes-style, as he walks purposefully toward each destination. The horror remains in the periphery, a blur, but it’s unmistakable: the pounding and screaming from behind the metal doors, the naked and lifeless limbs being dragged across the concrete floor once the doors have reopened. The suggestion of the suffering is more unsettling than wallowing in it. Saul reacts to nothing. His face remains stoic, unflinching.
Right away, we know we’re in the hands of a director who wants to tell the story of the Holocaust from a different perspective than we’ve seen before in films: a more personal, intimate one. “Son of Saul” is a movie that requires attention and patience, with a script from Nemes and Clara Royer that’s often wordless or whispered. If you’re not a fan of ambiguity, either from a narrative or moral perspective, you may have trouble here. But this is just a marvel of controlled filmmaking—a bold vision carried out with powerful simplicity, and an impressively assured debut form both Nemes and Röhrig as his star.
Röhrig has the tricky task of carrying this story on his shoulders—and us along with him—without the benefit of being able to emote or even say much. It’s a physical performance as much as it is a quietly emotional one; he has to establish who this man is mainly through his gestures, demeanor and energy. Saul is savvy and resourceful, traits he must use again and again to survive over the course of a harrowing couple of days. Then again, time is hazy here, as are many elements of “Son of Saul.” Identities are unclear at times, even of characters who play pivotal roles. Maybe that’s intentional, though—an effort by Nemes to suggest the psychological chaos that can exist in such a cruelly systematic environment.