Son of Saul: unflinching portrayal of Auschwitz victims

Andrew Pulver in The Guardian:

SaulImmersive is a word normally associated with thrillride films such as Gravity or Lord of the Rings, or boutique costumed events such as Secret Cinema; it is not one that tends to be linked with cinematic descriptions of human misery at its most extreme. But that is how Hungarian film-maker László Nemes likes to refer to his Oscar-winning Holocaust picture Son of Saul, which penetrates to the heart of the grotesque killing machine of Auschwitz. Nemes, 39, says he wanted Son of Saul, his first full-length feature film, to be a visceral experience and that he had “spent years experimenting with immersive strategies”; really, what he is talking about is Son of Saul’s extraordinary ability to evoke both the baleful dread inside the concentration camp, and the frenetic chaos of its extermination process. For virtually the entire film, the camera is rammed hard into the face of its protagonist Saul Ausländer (the surname, pointedly, means “alien” in German), with unspeakable cruelties largely enacted in blurred, out-of-focus sections of the frame, or just off-screen. The restricted perspective, Nemes says, was designed to reflect the fragmentary experience of the prisoners themselves. “The human experience within the camp was based on limitation and lack of information. No one could know or see that much. So how do you convey that?”

Right from the first frames, Nemes’s techniques pay jolting, heartstopping dividends. A continuous three-and-a-half-minute handheld shot begins with indistinct figures running in panic, then moves with Ausländer as he helps to control a trainload of new arrivals for one of the notorious rail-platform “selections”. There is little obvious violence on display: just glimpses of the desperate, cowed deportees and the vicious bellowing soldiers; a confused babel of shrill whistling, blaring music and barking dogs. Through all this, Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) exhibits an eerie, beatific placidity, as if attempting to transmit some sort of calmness to the panicked crowds around him. If it isn’t immediately apparent, it becomes clear quickly enough that Ausländer is a figure apart: one of the Sonderkommando, the special squads of death camp inmates forced to assist in the extermination process by cleaning gas chambers, disposing of corpses, shepherding prisoners and the like. Every few weeks, they themselves were executed, and new Sonderkommando teams were formed.

More here.