It struck me about five minutes into Son of Saul that László Nemes, the director, probably knows the work of the previous entrant on the blog, fellow Hungarian Imre Kertész. The scars of the Holocaust on the Eastern European psyche still run deep. How is it still possible to make a film about the Holocaust that feels urgent, pressing, of the now? And why is it necessary?
Son of Saul is brilliantly made, possesses a peculiar beauty, yet still succeeds in conveying shock. The shock is twofold. On the one hand there are the prosaic details of the process. The death, the barbarity, the bodies, the showers, the machine, the complicity. All these things are known, have been visited time and again. By framing his story through the prism of its ‘hero’s’ journey over the course of three days, maintaining a narrow focus, we observe all these things at the periphery of our vision. Every now and again the background leaps out at the viewer. A body dragged across the floor; a bloodstain being scrubbed. Sound and image are employed to make this terrible world come to life, every shot meticulously constructed to portray the heaving mechanism of the concentration camp, a machine of constant movement and barely-controlled chaos.
The second shock has more in common with the wry observations of Kertész: that within the confines of this hell, a man can retain his values and his humanity, as shown by Saul Auslander’s desire to provide a fit burial for the child he believes (or chooses to believe) is his son. The simple, ludicrous, mission renders everything else secondary. It’s a classic piece of storytelling which is delivered via a masterly use of the cinematic format.
If the film reminded me of any other, it’s perhaps Mungiu’s Five Weeks. The ability to convey a story with a claustrophobic focus, the bigger picture always present but kept in the background. Like the novel, cinema allows the storyteller to lead you through a world from the point of view of the narrative’s chosen protagonist. Why is it necessary? The urgency of the filmmaking stye succeeds in making Saul’s story feel like something that could be happening today. Nemes bridges the historical gap, creating empathy through shared experience. We don’t look on Saul as a historical figure, but as a contemporary. Cinema revokes history, and a modern audience is compelled to think: that this should never be permitted to happen again. The reasons why it might be necessary to remember this all over again right now, in the second decade of the 21st century, are, sadly, far too evident.