Though I’ve not yet seen the film, it’s all the talk of Cannes that it could be in contention for the Palme d’Or. It’s hard to guess how this jury will vote as each one is a different combination of sensibilities. But it’s worth noting when a film hits like this. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian writes:
A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers – as well as an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a drama. There is an argument that any such work, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be levelled at Son of Saul.
By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is remarkable. Director László Nemes’s film has the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See – which surely inspired its final sequence – and perhaps of Lajos Koltai’s Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom Nemes was for two years an assistant, but without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is concerned at some level with exerting a conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.
The gimmick, or what makes this film stand out from the many others on the same subject is this:
One of the most devastating and deeply shocking aspects of Son of Saul is that it begins with a gas chamber scene; another film might have opted to end with this kind of scenario, or to finish just before showing it. Nemes’s film allows us to grasp only belatedly that this is what is happening – we glimpse it at the edge of the frame which is largely dominated by Saul’s face. Prisoners are stripped and herded as if part of an industrial process of evil: the Nazi officers are all the time tricking and pacifying them with nonsense about how they are to be fed, clothed and used as craftsmen. And the awful truth is the presence of the Sonderkommando, helping to superintend this business and to hoodwink and reassure. It is a theatre of pure evil, all but unwatchable.