NO GENRE of film is as simultaneously consequential and vulnerable as the Holocaust genre. The Holocaust was the Worst Thing; the only worse that could possibly happen would for it to be forgotten. So there's a tremendous responsibility to keep Holocaust stories alive—but then, over-abstraction, melodrama, and embellishment can all alter the course. Overwhelming respect for the gravity of that task has already resulted in a stunning accumulation of films. But in recent memory, none seem as capable of conveying the legacy of the Holocaust in as respectful and progressive of a manner as László Nemes' debut feature, Son of Saul.
Like a third-person shooter video game, our perspective hovers over the shoulder of Saul Ausländer (played by poet Géza Röhrig), where a crudely painted red "X" across the back of his jacket identifies him as a death-camp Sonderkommando—one of the Jewish prisoners enlisted as labor to enable the Nazi genocide. Perched at Ausländer's side, the audience is whisked through the Auschwitz gauntlet: herding scared and confused new arrivals from train to "shower room," where they're told they'll be given work and hot soup afterward; ransacking their clothing for valuables; dragging the corpses (sickeningly referred to as "pieces") out of the chamber and stacking them for cremation; scrubbing away the blood and other mess left behind. Every few months, the Sonderkommando are executed and replaced, and they know it.
Though profoundly intimate and doggedly realistic, Nemes executes an elegant, judicious use of peripheral imagery and sound design rather than full-frontal grotesque. Choices regarding treatment of the Holocaust's factual horrors are where the burden is heaviest on filmmakers: to be too soft is disloyal to the mission of truth-telling, while to linger risks exploitation. Nemes' film not only achieves that delicate balance, it does so with a freshness of style and technique that brings stories of the Holocaust back into the fold of innovative cinema.