Don’t mention the H-word around the makers of Son of Saul. The Cannes Grand Pix-winning Holocaust drama may play like a horror movie, with its immersive, first-person POV journey into the tortured soul of a man forced to assist in the extermination of his own people. But director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig visibly recoil at the suggestion of fright-fest genre-play—even as they acknowledge their film’s forbidding aspects.
“People, even survivors, told me they were scared of seeing this film,” Nemes says, seated alongside his star. “But then when they watched it, they thanked me.”
Son of Saul certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into any category, not even the “Holocaust film” subgenre. Sallow-faced Saul (Röhrig) is enslaved in the death camps as a sonderkommando, conscripted to lead fellow Jews to extermination and then clean their corpses from the chamber. Amid the routines of atrocity, he impulsively decides to give a slain child a proper Jewish burial — logic and plausibility be damned. Nemes presents this waking nightmare via the cinematic equivalence of tunnel vision, keeping the character in tight close-up while most action happens at the periphery, off screen, or out of focus in the background. Imagine the world’s grimmest first-person video game.
Both director and actor say that they never sought to exploit the audience’s fears, and even avoided (quite literally) putting horrific imagery front and center on screen. “We’re never increasing the shock value for its own sake,” Röhrig says. “We’re always preferring restraint to excess.” The restraint extends to the information being supplied, as there’s no backstory of who Saul is or how he got here. He’s just a man in hell, and we’re thrust directly into the cauldron with him.
Their approach has been both highly praised and harshly criticized — in both respects thanks to its take-notice formal conceit, which, depending on the audience, either expresses or exploits the victim’s experience. But even its detractors use words like “masterful” and “virtuosity” to describe the effects of the movie’s unusual perspective. “We didn’t want to limit the scope of inhumanity that took place there by trying to shoot it frontally,” Nemes explains. “In a sense, [that] would make it understandable. Whereas by making a portrait, and making the information very fragmented, we opened the mental perspective of inhumanity.”