If you’re worried about the summer film season, and all the noisy franchise entries and underwhelming populist fare that takes up the bulk of cinema conversation until Oscar season rolls back around, you can do a lot worse than investing yourself in the Cannes Film Festival. The premiere of new works by top art-house directors, followed by the first-look reviews and inevitable controversies, are what sets the conversation, and indeed the lifespan of a large number of films over the coming year. With so much variety, the Palme D’Or can go just about anywhere. This is part of its beauty, that the winner so often reflects the jury, as member Laszlo Nemes said at this year’s opening conference, ‘every jury is different and random.’ He would know. Nemes’ first feature Son of Saul premiered at Cannes last year, where it picked up the Grand Prix and a host of mouthwatering acclaim, but although touted for the big prize it was overlooked for the softer Dheepan, Jaques Audiard’s riff on Death Wish.
Nemes has constructed a formally precise brutalist holocaust movie which evades the usual criticism of such films by restricting the entire film to the perspective of the titular Saul, a prisoner who works cleaning the showers of Auschwitz in order to provide a proper religious burial for his son. The 4:3 image is crammed into lead actor Géza Röhrig’s face for the duration of the film, creating a claustrophobic and oppressive intimacy that enables the viewer to believe we are watching high art, and not a thriller.
The film is structured around bravura set pieces, such as a slow march to the fire pits or a hopeless escape attempt. One would expect to see these sequences in any war film. But Lemes’ skill at escalating stakes and tension makes them stand out as thoroughly immersive, haunting sequences. Characters are constantly being grabbed and pulled from place to place, with no agency of their own. In this way Son of Saul is a rollercoaster that doesn’t stop for breath. The sound design tells the story that we cannot see. We know if someone is approaching Saul by the thumping of boots, we hear flames roar and screams overcome the soundtrack. Cutting is sporadic and harsh; no dissolves to be found here. We barely learn about Saul, and events that transpire before the end of the film have us wondering if what little we know of him is even true. In this way Son of Saul manages to create a very specific world that can be broadly relatable, a clear effort by Niemes to absolve himself of the potentially offensive side-effects of holocaust filmmaking.
Rather than feeling exploitative through mawkish sentimentality of the like that makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief so irksome to some, Son of Saul is exploitative by going in the opposite direction. The film fully embraces the lurid aspects of its conceit that make it a psychological thriller. By its final quarter Son of Saul is rocketeering through set piece after set piece at a pace which, along with its protracted handheld shots, recalls Children of Men. Emotionally the film is saved by Röhrig, who does so much with his blank slate of a character that he creates an empathy which stops the film from feeling like an empty exercise.
The fact is that no reconstruction can give us the insight of real footage from the camps. As one of the first atrocities to be committed in the era of popular filmmaking, the most effective holocaust filmmaking has come in the form of the documentary. It is powerful when Saul puts his head to the wall and hears the screams of the showers, but in Night and Fog, which premiered at Cannes in 1955, we see their echoes. Alain Resnais in that film presents the camps as they stood in 1955, cutting it with stock footage of the camps at their busiest and later of it being cleaned up after the fall of the Nazis. This collision of space, time, and memory speaks to our collective experience and combines the sprawling with the personal. Lemes’ blinkered vision is exciting in the moment, but does not last like its predecessor.