From the moment the man with the red X painted on his back emerges from the blur and comes into focus, at the center of the screen at the start of the film, Son of Saul is in constant motion.
The man is Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian and a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners tasked to aid the Nazis in the extermination of their fellow Jews. It is 1944. It is Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is hell.
Unlike any Holocaust drama to come before, Son of Saul - the best foreign language feature Oscar nominee from Hungary - offers a crushing view of humanity at its most desperate, and a view of one man's fevered efforts to find grace and dignity amid the horror.
Directed by László Nemes, Son of Saul rejects traditional narrative devices, putting the camera close-up alongside Röhrig, hunched-down, with his sharp, birdlike features. The actor's Saul ushers new prisoners into the death chambers and then hurriedly shovels the corpses out. All around him is a whorl of sound, and incinerated flesh.
For their efforts, the Sonderkommandos are given food and a shred of liberty. But there's hardly time for survivor's guilt; a few months after they begin their grim tasks, they, too, are killed. There cannot be witnesses. New "workers" will be found.
What shakes Saul from the numbing execution of his duties, this nightmare of horrific labor, is the discovery of a boy among the dead - a boy he believes to be his son. He manages to move the body away from the crematorium, entreating a physician to safeguard the corpse, searching among the prisoners for a rabbi who can recite the Kaddish and give the boy a proper burial.
Meanwhile, plans for a rebellion are being made and attempts to document the atrocities.
Son of Saul is claustrophobic by design, relentless in its momentum, the camera dogging its protagonist like, well, a hungry dog. As we follow Saul on his urgent quest, we wonder: Is the dead boy in truth Saul's son, or has Saul himself succumbed to a kind of madness, a crazed and catastrophic hope?
Son of Saul is no easy film to watch. But its emotional force, its power, its sense of visceral dread, is impossible to deny.
Son of Saul ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by László Nemes. With
Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, and
Urs Rechn. In Hungarian, Yiddish, German, and Polish with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, Holocaust images, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five and Carmike at Ritz Center/NJ.EndText