The unique World War II thriller “Son of Saul” (Sony Pictures Classics, December 18) comes from two Holocaust scholars, rookie Hungarian director László Nemes, who worked as an assistant director in France and Hungary (with Béla Tarr) before meeting poet Géza Röhrig in New York when Nemes was studying film directing at NYU. Röhrig makes his feature debut as Saul, a Jewish prisoner-of-war at Auschwitz in 1944.
After the movie premiered in competition at Cannes in May (rare for a debut director), winning the Grand Prix and the Fipresci critics’ prize, “Son of Saul” toured the festival circuit including Telluride and Toronto. The film has since won the Golden Globe, received an Indie Spirit nomination, and been shortlisted for Best Foreign-Language Film by the Academy—for which it’s the current frontrunner
Nemes’ tightly-focused camera follows the Sonderkommando’s blinkered close-up point-of-view as he does the Nazis’ dirty work in the crematoria and moves through the camp seeking to bury a young boy. Who is he? The movie’s immersive action and intricately layered sound design reveal the hideous scale of the mass slaughter of Jews and is not soon forgotten.
Inspired by the book “Voices from Beneath the Ashes” featuring eyewitness accounts by Sonderkommando who buried their testimonies, Nemes was able to ground his narrative (shot in 35 mm), in the authentic, tangible everyday functioning of what he describes as “a death factory….its rules, work cadences, shifts, hazards, and its maximum productivity.”