It is a truism for revolutionaries that people make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. But what of the men, women and children who have history thrust upon them, with cataclysmic consequences for their own personal circumstances?
Son of Saul tells the story of a man’s struggle to hold on to family and personal relationships and obligations in the hideous organised chaos of the Nazi gas chambers.
Director László Nemes has said he wanted to make a film about “the limitations of the individual in the camps”. How is it possible in these circumstances to hold onto a semblance of humanity? How can one fight back against the all-encompassing, systematic attempt to strip away individuality and personal identity? Readers of this magazine may agree or not as to whether these are the most fruitful lines of enquiry into the Holocaust, but what emerges from them is an incredibly gripping exploration of the role of the atomised individual caught in the frenzy of one of history’s most terrible episodes.
It is a brutal watch, but brilliantly conceived and realised. The careful approach to the subject matter means that the film shows the full horror of the concentration camp, without being insensitive or gratuitous. The film refuses to turn to many of the familiar images and symbols common to films about the Holocaust. Nemes has said, “Cinema has done much to lie about the experience of the camps.” The absence of such imagery or contrivance allows a more immediate confrontation with the reality of the Holocaust. Géza Röhrig’s intense and heart-breaking central performance plunges us into his world and we experience his hopes and anguish alongside him.
This is an extremely claustrophobic film. Its deliberate eschewing of a wide historical panoramic in favour of a tight focus on a brief but crucial chapter in the life of one inmate can at times feel like we’re missing out on the social context in which this vast crime took place. But this is counterbalanced by the accuracy with which the social reality of life in the camp is depicted. The inmates are forced to make unimaginable choices and compromises day by day, minute by minute.
The relentless industrial soundtrack plays a large role in conveying the mechanisation of killing, the systematic and routine destruction of people’s lives. The glimpses of humanity and peace that we do get are as moving as they are fleeting.
Son of Saul uses tropes and genre techniques borrowed from films with much less ambition and much lighter subject matter to draw the audience in and hold their emotional and intellectual attention. It is an exceptionally clever, serious and powerful film that everyone should see.