"Over the years, the Holocaust has become an abstraction," said Son of Saul director Laszlo Nemes as he accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign language film last month. "For me, it's more a face. Let us not forget that face."
For viewers of Son of Saul, the gripping Holocaust thriller opening Friday at the Cedar Lee, the face you'll come to know intimately is that of lead actor Geza Rohrig. He plays Saul Auslander, a former locksmith who, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, has been enlisted in the Sonderkommando. It's a division of Jews forced to work for the Nazis before being exterminated themselves: They help the hundreds of new arrivals disrobe, herd them into the gas chambers, and then dispose of the corpses — "pieces," in the Nazi vocabulary.
In a chaotic opening sequence, Saul does all of the above. The horrific images are presented in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, camera fixed tight over Saul's shoulder or up close on his face. The viewing experience is at first claustrophobic, almost oppressive. You keep wanting the camera to pull back, to breathe a bit, to expose a wide shot of the camp and its horrors. But it resists. We're with Saul the whole way.
After the initial slaughter, a young boy is discovered to have survived, somehow. A Nazi medical team promptly smothers his face to finish him off, but Saul recognizes him as his son. Saul is from Hungary, and the film takes place late in the Second World War, after the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews. At that time, the threat of invasion loomed, and the pace of extermination picked up.
It's during the frenzy of that acceleration that Saul attempts to give this boy a traditional Jewish burial. His two central tasks are preserving the body from autopsy — the Germans want to know how he survived the gas — and finding a rabbi to perform kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. Concurrently, a Sonderkommando contingent is trying to organize a rebellion in the face of its own imminent extermination. Saul participates, but only to the extent that he can further his agenda.
The terrible geography of Auschwitz comes into focus. It was organized on multiple campuses. Saul manages to bus to the labor camp on his rabbi search, but the majority of the action transpires at Birkenau, "the death factory." There, even the gas chambers can't accommodate the velocity of extermination the Nazis prefer. In a dizzying third-act scene, new arrivals are executed assembly-line style, outdoors and at night, with single headshots on the lips of mass graves. Fire spews everywhere, and it's equal to the most monstrous war zone horrors you've seen in recent movies.
Geza Rohrig's face, throughout, is the principal means by which the daring narrative is conveyed. It's a rugged, sturdy face with a blister on its upper lip. Its brows are a constant furrowed shelf over intense and searching eyes. And when Saul speaks — he doesn't often — his voice is a pleading whimper, at odds (but somehow in perfect harmony) with his gaze. His is the face of a man who has endured the unendurable: not only witnessing the murder of his countrymen at the hands of monsters, but serving at the monsters' command.
The word that's been associated with the film (and the filmmaking) is immediacy. Writer-director Nemes doesn't give Saul much of a backstory — whether or not the boy is his son is never empirically answered — and the dialogue, when it arrives, is scant and often either whispered or shouted amid throngs.
Instead, he focuses on Saul's face, which does change by movie's end. The penultimate shot is devoted to it. And though Laszlo Nemes instructed us not to forget the face, it's unlikely that you'll have much of a choice.