László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul is as experimental as mainstream narrative cinema gets, and as bold. Set in Auschwitz in 1944 during the planning of a prisoner uprising, the film – and, very specifically here, the camera – follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando, as he tries to do one significant act of morality amongst the absolute horror of his surrounds.
The Sonderkommando were able-bodied prisoner work units within the death camps who aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were separated from the general prisoner population and given adequate rations and sleep to remain productive (although, of course, everything here is relative, and we’re still talking about extreme and nightmarish conditions). With every move he makes to complete his objective, Saul risks his own life, the lives of others including those he “works with”, and the uprising itself. The stakes are as high as they get, and the milieu as dramatic as they come.
When I say the camera follows Saul, I mean it really follows Saul. Not to be glib, but the aesthetic here, bold and striking, is similar to that of a “first-person” shooter”, in that Saul is always in frame, usually centered, as the camera follows his every move. Beyond Saul, however – and here lies a crucial aesthetic choice – the world is out of focus. Nemes’ shoots the whole thing with an incredibly narrow depth of field, so while Saul is sharp, even the bodies he drags are blurry.
In a way, this technique makes the film bearable. We know these are bodies, and we’re glad not to see them. But on other levels, Nemes is getting to something, I think, of the mind-set Saul has to exist in in order to go about his business the way he does. He “sees but does not see”. Meanwhile, the soundtrack supplies us with endless horrors – but is also stylistically situated to reflect Saul’s emotional defenses: Nemes has stated that, to be truly realistic, we would hear much more screaming on the soundtrack, but Saul filters out the screams as much as he can, for his – and therefore our – protection.
It is an astonishing technical feat, especially considering the entire world the filmmakers must have constructed, only to shoot most of it out of focus. On a story level, the film is as murky as those blurry images, which fits in with the controlled chaos of the camp but also may alienate some viewers to the point of distraction. I gave up trying to keep track of a couple of story elements and instead let the world envelop me. Thank goodness, after an hour and fifty minutes, I was able to walk into the sunshine; Nemes, in his debut feature, has created such an immersive experience that it is hell to be part of, and yet must be experienced.