László Nemes’ box-ratio, third-person-sonderkommando, debut feature Son of Saulcontinuously eschews traditional, classically staged, continuous action and prefers, instead, to construct a notion of the circumstances that prevail inside Auschwitz immediately before the end of war. As a result, the film deals in minor, near-imperceptible sensorial charges: feet shuffle, a scream in the distance, the rat-a-tat of a machine gun, the thuds of bodies hitting the ground, the swoosh of a burning fire. There are signs of life around the protagonist (Saul, a body-surveyor who must look for and bury his mythical son): flesh swarms, blood streams, general commotion, vehicular smoke, an atmosphere full of mud and grime – but Nemes and his cinematographer (Mátyás Erdély, who he shares a credit card with at the end) render these abstract to the point of absence through elaborate choreography, depositing them in the off-screen and almost as a rule, dowsing Saul’s head in a tank of soft-focus.
The peculiar aesthetic strategy – which borrows from both war photography and the newsreel – illustrates perfectly the chaos inherent in running the final stages of a genocide. This is manifest also in the manner in which the residents of the camp (inmates, officers, workers) move around its premises; helter-skelter, unsupervised, a pinball-machine gone whack. They all develop their personal, unsupervised routes across the camp premises, affecting an intersection only when a selfish need arises – as a result, the camp begins to resemble a trade-center, a system of interactions founded on small, minor gestures of corruption and industry: a bribe, a threat, a bargain, some religious coercion. Through all of this, Saul retains his commitment to a grander purpose, his private project. At various stages, those around him remind him of his vulnerability, of prospective deception, but he continues to believe. Ultimately, Nemes lays it on heavy with the final statement: inside a universe that thrives on death, faith will quickly be reduced to rubble; to madness. Inside Auschwitz, where the walls are lathered with the symptoms of a vulgar reality, dreaming is no longer a possibility.