“Son of Saul” opens with a sequence whose content is almost unbearable to watch, both in spite of and because of its form. The setting is the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp toward the end of World War II; the Germans are losing, which just means their machinery of slaughter is spinning faster. A prisoner named Saul (Géza Röhrig) works as a member of the infamous Sonderkommando — Jews forced to maintain the gas chambers and ovens, to sort out the personal belongings of the murdered, and to bury the bodies. In so doing, they put off their own deaths by a month or two.
A new shipment of prisoners arrives for extermination. The camera keeps Saul in the center of the frame, held in shallow focus as unspeakable things happen just beyond our line of sight. We hear the doors slam shut. We hear a slow, agonizing tidal wave of human screams that takes forever to build to the breaking point. Then silence. Then the cleaning up. Then the process begins all over again.
Few movies have gone here, for the simple reason that visualizing obscenity runs the risk of diminishing it. Should some things remain unseen? Claude Lanzmann’s epic 1985 documentary “Shoah” decreed as much, matching filmed testimony of survivors to modern-day footage of empty camps. “The Grey Zone,” a 2001 drama by director Tim Blake Nelson featuring a Hollywood cast, rubbed our noses in a re-enacted reality of the Sonderkommando, to mixed results.
The Hungarian director László Nemes, in a nervy and largely successful filmmaking debut, takes a middle path. “Son of Saul” details the absurdist efforts of its hero to give one young boy a proper Jewish burial amid an endless parade of anonymous death. It proposes that, in a universe that has entirely lost its bearings, one futile act of morality is better than no act at all.
Working with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, Nemes keeps Saul at the center of that frame throughout the film’s 107-minute running time, wavering in and out of close-up, the action unfolding in layers of focus that reveal bits of the horror but never its totality. This approach renders the men and women with whom Saul comes into contact over one night of chaos and killing as individuals, and unforgettable ones. And it denies us — or rescues us from — the abstraction of crowds, honoring the dictum that the death of one man is a tragedy while the death of millions is a statistic. (Which Joseph Stalin did not say, no matter what the Internet tells you.)
It’s also a gimmick, a story-telling conceit, and as powerfully as “Son of Saul” uses its withholding camera eye as a way to imagine the unimaginable, there are moments — more than a few — when you feel the filmmaking rather than the film. At times, that’s a relief. But it’s also a critical reservation. Nemes successfully avoids Holocaust kitsch, but he courts the flame.
You may not mind, so far does this movie go into the abyss while retaining a hold on its humanism — so fully does it ask us to fill in the blanks of a living, dying world beyond the reach of its vision. The boy Saul wants to bury is one of the few to survive the gas chambers, only to be finished off by one of the Auschwitz doctors; it’s a final outrage that seems to spur this fierce, solemn little man — this nobody — into a quest to find a rabbi.
The scene is out of Dante. The Russian army is about to overwhelm the camps even as trains arrive from the west bearing more men, women, and children. The Sonderkommando, a legion made up of desperate opportunists and even more desperate fighters, is planning an uprising. In his search for ritual and absolution, Saul attaches himself to one person, then another, then another, carrying the boy’s corpse around like the sins of man, and in this way Nemes overcomes his cramped cinematic gambit to allow us to gradually see the whole camp and the people in it.
The film has been nominated for a foreign language Oscar, Hungary’s first; it’s considered the front-runner to win. That, obviously, is a triviality next to the experience of “Son of Saul” itself. The film errs here and there, such as when it seems to step off the high wire separating actuality from allegory to explain the title — suddenly, we’re required to calculate the odds of coincidence more than we should. But on the whole it’s daring and committed, and in Röhrig’s tremendously focused performance, it honors all the saints we’ll never know. And that’s worth any risk.
★ ★ ★ ½
SON OF SAUL
Directed by László Nemes. Written by Nemes and Clara Royer. Starring Géza Röhrig. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 107 minutes. R (disturbing violent content, some graphic nudity). In Magyar, Yiddish, and German, with subtitles.