The Holocaust has, by now, been represented enough times on film that each new depiction demands justification more than the last. Academic scrutiny, warring thinkpieces, and critical deconstructions pit each new film on the subject against those that came before, demanding that this film achieves something that another one hasn’t done better. There is reason to be vigilant against the exploitation of genocide by way of rejecting banality, but that attitude sometimes seems to elevate to an almost sacred status what was a savage and complex event. The extermination of millions of human beings is too devastating and important an event to distort or trivialize with platitudes, it’s true; it’s also impossible to encapsulate in any one comment by any one voice.
With all this backround in mind, first-time director László Nemes’s choice to make the Holocaust the subject of his debut has an undeniable ring of arrogance, and it would be equally arrogant to dismiss this criticism by citing Neme’s Serious Arthouse Credentials (his assistance of Béla Tarr on the latter’s The Man from London has been constantly overstated and is probably more a sexy connection than a defining precedent). Instead, what absolves the Nemes’s debut from jabs of self-importance is that it approaches its material with a pertinent and unique stylistic conceit: he puts the camera on a leash.
In any case, Son of Saul is ultimately more beholden to the possibilities of its formal dogma and its means of morally interfacing with history than it is to a coherent “plot,” though its story serves well enough: after this particular gassing, Saul recognizes a boy who still breathes for a moment, as his long-unseen son, and after the child is smothered to death, resolves to honor his boy with a proper Jewish burial, complete with a rabbi. What Saul lacks, however, is a willing rabbi, and so he moves about the camp following rumors and guesses, even stealing away from the Sonderkommando unit to which he’s restricted, while at the same time that unit pressures him to do his part in assisting an armed uprising the next morning.
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