Newspaper article International New York Times

Life and Death in Auschwitz, in Forbidding Close-Up

Newspaper article International New York Times

Life and Death in Auschwitz, in Forbidding Close-Up

Article excerpt

In "Son of Saul," Laszlo Nemes's debut feature, Geza Rohrig plays a Sonderkommando hoping to bury a boy's corpse rather than burn it in the ovens.

Son of Saul. Directed by Laszlo Nemes.

The shape of the screen is unusually narrow in "Son of Saul," the 38-year-old Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes's debut feature. Nearly square, it evokes an earlier era, when all movies looked this way, and also emphasizes the claustrophobia of the story and the setting.

We are in a Nazi death camp, and really in it, to a degree that few fictional films have had the nerve to attempt. The camera doesn't just survey the barracks and the guard towers, the haggard prisoners and brutal guards. It takes us to the very door of the gas chambers, in the close company of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Jewish inmate who is a member of the camp's Sonderkommando (special commando) unit.

Here I should step back a bit, though Mr. Nemes, who favors a hand-held, intimate, in-the-moment shooting style, decidedly does not. The Sonderkommando occupy an especially painful and contested place in the history of the Holocaust. Slave laborers like nearly everyone else in the camps who was not immediately killed, they had the job of shepherding their fellow Jews to their deaths and cleaning up afterward, sorting through clothes, eyeglasses, jewelry and other personal effects and burning the corpses.

They were rewarded for this service with meager privileges that included improved rations and the postponement of their own inevitable deaths. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, where "Son of Saul" takes place, there was a Sonderkommando uprising in 1944, an event that is echoed in parts of the film. After the war, members of the Sonderkommando were shunned by many other survivors because they had, however involuntarily, participated in the slaughter. Some were executed or otherwise punished for collaborating with the Germans.

This larger history is kept outside the frame. Shot mostly in extended close-ups -- the skilled director of photography is Matyas Erdely -- "Son of Saul" moves relentlessly in the present tense, never leaving Saul's side. Not that we penetrate his thoughts. Mr. Rohrig, a poet and former teacher appearing in his first film, has the intriguing opacity that distinguishes nonprofessional actors. Like Lamberto Maggiorani in "Bicycle Thieves" or Maria Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc," he is an indelibly particular screen presence. His face is a mask of stoicism, anguish, exhaustion and cunning.

Our eyes are trained on Saul, and therefore we don't see much of what he sees. Mr. Nemes uses camera techniques that blur everything not immediately in front of his protagonist's face. Though we find ourselves in close proximity to death, we are also detached from it. Human figures are blurred, movements are indistinct, and horrifying sounds -- cries, gasps, footsteps, blows -- reach us from invisible sources. …

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