What are the limits of representation? That's a moral question that hovers over any depiction of the Final Solution, and it's not considered lightly by László Nemes' Son of Saul, which turns unimaginable horrors into tangible ones. By venturing inside the death factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nemes risks greeting obscenity with obscenity, as if the Holocaust were the latest frontier in you-are-there experiential cinema. But nearly every second in Son of Saul feels rigorously determined to evoke a historical evil as fully as possible without marinating in it.
Though Nemes and his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, are precise in controlling what the camera glimpses, their main strategy is to limit visual perspective severely and leave the soundtrack -- and the viewer's imagination -- to do most of the dirty work. In his audacious feature debut, Nemes narrows the frame to Academy ratio, keeps a shallow depth-of-field and tracks a single cog in the death-camp machine.
Son of Saul opens with its most harrowing sequence, entering an Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium where Saul (Géza Röhrig) serves as part of the Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners forced to clean up the gas chambers after executions. We learn nothing about how Saul came to join their ranks. Though Saul and the Sonderkommando live apart from the other prisoners, their deaths are no less certain, only delayed. Röhrig's face, in these moments, is a mask of grim resignation. Nemes doesn't try to counter the darkness with more than a tiny, stubborn flicker of hope. Its smallness serves as a powerful rebuke to the martyrs and saints that populate Schindler's List or Life is Beautiful.