‘Son of Saul’ Cannes Review: Rookie Director Shocks Festival With Wrenching Holocaust Drama

Laszlo Nemes’ powerful film finds a new way to look at the Holocaust cinematically

One of the most surprising things about Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul” (“Saul Fia”), a tough Holocaust drama that’s probably the most surprising and shocking film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival so far this year, might be that it was competing for the Palme d’Or at all.

After all, the film is the first feature for Hungarian director Nemes, and it’s a given at Cannes that directors have to work their way up to the main competition.

You don’t just get slotted into the most prestigious of the festival’s sections without a track record, usually including a couple of prior films appearing in the Un Certain Regard section or in independent sidebars like Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight.

Even Xavier Dolan, a filmmaking wunderkind if there ever was one, had four of his first five movies accepted at Cannes, but was famously kept out of the main competition until last year’s “Mommy.” (He made his irritation public — but this year, as if to show there are no hard feelings, he’s back as a juror.)

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All of which is to say that Nemes has pulled off a rare feat, landing in the main competition with his directorial debut. The question hanging over Thursday’s first screenings of “Son of Saul,” which has its official premiere on Friday, is whether Nemes had produced such a standout work that Cannes programmers were forced to reconsider their usual policy, or whether they came in determined to change their stuffy image and simply used Nemes to achieve that end.

That may have been a question before “Son of Saul” screened, but the answer is now blindingly obvious: This movie made it into the main competition because it deserves to be there.

Some early viewers have already talked about it winning the Palme d’Or, which is jumping the gun a bit on Day 2. (On the other hand, if I were a first-time Cannes director eligible for the Camera d’Or, which goes to the best debut film from any section of the festival, I’d be sweating about now.)

“Son of Saul” does something remarkable: It finds an original way to look at the Holocaust cinematically, bringing a startling energy and a fresh look to a subject already explored countless times onscreen.

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Nemes’ version is the story of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew who works in a concentration camp as a member of the Sonderkommando, prisoners who assist the Nazis in exterminating their fellow inmates. It’s a job you can’t do without numbing yourself to everything around you, and that’s what Saul has done at the beginning of the film.

He methodically leads new prisoners to the “showers,” tells them to see him about work assignments once they’ve cleaned up, and then systematically collects their clothes, pilfering valuables from them as screams and pounding fill the air from the adjoining gas chambers.

The camera mirrors Saul’s ability to shut things out, because it almost never leaves his face (or the back of his head) and rarely backs up to show even a medium shot. This is Saul’s world, tight and claustrophobic and chaotic; we might see dead bodies or Nazi guards in quick flashes in the corners of the frame, but mostly what we’re looking at is Saul’s impassive face, drained of humanity because to be human would be unbearable.

The shooting style is aided by Nemes’ decision to shoot in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, a nearly square format that, when you fill it with a head, leaves precious little room for anything else.

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Saul’s attitude of detachment changes when he finds the corpse of a boy he thinks might be the son he hasn’t seen in years. He still remains numb to most of what’s around him, but he’s relentlessly focused on giving his son a proper burial, a job that under the circumstances is somewhere between impossible and suicidal.

The tight focus on one character to the exclusion of everything else can be exhausting to the viewer, but it never comes across as just a gimmick; it’s too central to the story Nemes is telling.

Aided by a remarkable sound design, “Son of Saul” creates a Holocaust out of whispers and screams and the barest of glimpses of anything except a man who says, “I wish I understood nothing.”

It’s extraordinarily powerful, often hard to watch, and a real tribute to Cannes programmers who knew when to bend their own rules.