In the first shot of Hungarian director László Nemes' absorbing Holocaust thriller "Son of Saul," the ill-fated protagonist stumbles into frame and arrives in an unflattering closeup, his grimy face and tattered prison camp clothes establishing an unseemly portrait. Slowly, it's revealed that former locksmith Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) has been tasked with disposing of gas chamber victims, one of whom he believes to be his long-lost son. But Nemes lets those details steadily assemble rather than establishing them upfront.
In the opening minutes, the physical chaos and shouts of desperation from Auschwitz-Birkenau surround Saul in soft focus, hinting at a terrifying bigger picture while keeping the action rooted in its main character's personal conundrum. The camera mostly stays right there, inches from Saul's face, for the duration of this tense two hour experience. A remarkable refashioning of the Holocaust drama that reignites the setting with extraordinary immediacy, "Son of Saul" is both terrifying to watch and too gripping to look away.
Nemes' ability to inject the material of a concentration camp survival story — which, sadly, now carries the baggage of countless sentimental clichés — with bracing cinematic energy is all the more impressive because it's the writer-director's first feature. He's aided in that feat by cinematographer Matyas Erdely's crisp 35mm cinematography, which contains the action in the boxed-in 4:3 Academy ratio, leading to the perception of being trapped in a hellacious underworld while never once straining credibility. Erdely's previous credits include the jittery thriller "Miss Bala," which involved Mexican crime lords, and "Son of Saul" is similarly noteworthy for its capacity to root the material in a constant agitated state.
He couldn't have found a drearier situation to explore. Before the movie begins, Saul has been assigned to the Sonderkommando, a work camp for prisoners responsible for cleaning up after various executions. Nemes confronts the sheer horror of that endeavor head-on: Whereas "Schindler's List" faced plenty of criticism for its sugarcoated scene in which prisoners are shepherded into a gas chamber only to be met with a shower, "Son of Saul" offers no such respite. The camera lingers on Saul's face as he's forced to stand guard and listen to the violent thuds and cries of dying victims just on the other side of the wall, while his stony expression suggests he's been through the harrowing procedure countless times before.
But this time the outcome is even worse. Mopping up the mess, his fellow inmates discover a child still breathing after the gas has been extinguished, until camp doctor comes by and promptly smothers the victim. Nabbing the corpse and attempting to prevent the medical ward from performing an autopsy, Saul's abrupt behavior makes it increasingly clear that he thinks the boy is in fact the son he hasn't seen in years — though just how long, like most details involving Saul's past, remains unclear. He may not remember himself.
Saul's unsettling plight finds him scurrying about the camp in desperate search for a rabbi to perform Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, so that he can bury the child in peace. Though he finds a flash of sympathy from a doctor only a few degrees removed from Saul's own servitude, he mainly suffers through a solitary experience made even worse when various prisoners express disdain at his self-interested goal. "You failed the living for the dead," one man tells him after he battles through a mass slaughter in the midst of his mission. But in the camp, the distinction between the living and the dead is murky at best.
In the meantime, Saul finds himself enmeshed in the stirrings of an escape plan, which in his diminished state he mostly regards with ambivalence. Nemes maintains an immersive narrative in which dialogue comes and goes in terse, whispered exchanges as the prisoners attempt to develop their strategy with the prospects of sudden death always just a few feet away. The camp takes on the dimensions of breathless war zone, enhanced by a camera technique reminiscent of "Children of Men" for the way it draws us into the constant motion of the disturbing events, but more grounded in the experiences of single wide-eyed individual.
Rohrig's slender, bewildered appearance at times lends a robotic feel to the character, whose lack of a cogent backstory sometimes hinders the ability to fully invest in the stakes of his goal. Still, Nemes drops plenty of hints along the way, and the rapid pace smooths over some of the outstanding questions surrounding his motives. From start to finish, Saul never takes a break for the sake of exposition.
The uneasiness carries over from scene to scene. One heartbreaking sequence in which he briefly makes contact with his wife in the neighboring women's section of the camp results in a painful confrontation between the estranged couple that — due to the limiting environment — unfolds exclusively through eye contact. By extension, "Son of Saul" avoids any extensive interruption to explain the stakes at hand, but the visceral quality of the proceedings say enough. When one prisoner notices Saul's endeavor, he advises, "a rabbi won't save you from fear."
But if Saul goes through any transition over the course of the movie, it involves his ability to confront fear on his own terms. That process unfolds entirely through implication. Like Claude Lanzmann's landmark documentary "Shoah," Nemes displays a fierce resistance toward sentimentalizing the material, instead dropping clues to explain the psychological turmoil in play.
"Son of Saul" develops a powerful edge from the sheer devastating nature of its events, while resisting even the slightest overstatement. Only one quiet shot near the end points the material in a surprising direction, but even when the action abruptly shifts from Saul's point of view, the nightmare hasn't ended. "Son of Saul" asserts that, for so many victims of the Final Solution, it never did. But within that context, Nemes uncovers a semblance of optimism in the very act of perseverance against impossible odds, no matter the outcome.
"Son of Saul" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.