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Source: Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times, May 12, 2015

The Hungarian film “Saul Fia” (Son of Saul) takes place in a hell within hell: the world of the Sonderkommandos, the Jews in Auschwitz who were forced to dispose of the dead. Separated from the general population of prisoners, they manned the crematories, and were themselves purged every few months. The routine epitomizes a death camp where, as Primo Levi wrote in “Survival in Auschwitz,” “many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.”

Auschwitz would be a grim challenge for any filmmaker to portray, but “Son of Saul” is in fact a debut feature, by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes. His unusual Holocaust drama is a rare first film selected for the competition at the Cannes International Film Festival.

“Laszlo Nemes shows what we thought would be impossible to show in a fiction film, an extermination camp at work, as a factory of death,” said the film historian and critic Antoine de Baecque. “By following the specific gaze of a cog inside this machinery,” he added, “the movie successfully adopts, with discipline and fairness, the only possible representation of a tragedy morally unfilmable.”

In writing and directing the story, Mr. Nemes, 38, sought a clear-eyed realism about horrors that remain painful to imagine. Set over a 36-hour period in October 1944, “Son of Saul” hews to the perspective of Saul Auslander, a fictional member of a Sonderkommando unit. One day, Saul thinks he recognizes his lost son among the dead to be cremated, and his obsessive efforts to bury the boy puts him in conflict with prisoners who are plotting a rebellion.

“Our approach was to follow a main character through a very limited space and time, and have a very simple and almost archaic story as the skeleton of the film,” Mr. Nemes said in a Skype conversation from Budapest, where he lives. “We felt that we couldn’t shoot the whole Holocaust. We didn’t want to tell too much and shoot too much.”

For verisimilitude, Mr. Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer drew on survivor accounts as well as writings that prisoners buried in the earth and that were discovered years later. Rather than offer a broad view of the camp, as many past movies of the Holocaust have, “Son of Saul” sticks close to its protagonist with very dynamic, very mobile camerawork and limits our focus to what he is looking at.

“The overall idea is you’re like a sea snake, going all over the place,” Mr. Nemes said of his 107-minute feature. “We remain inside the limitations of a human being.” His 2007 short film “With a Little Patience” maintains a similar focus on a blinkered German clerk during the Nazi era.

Mr. Nemes’s formative experience includes a two-year stint as assistant to the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr on “The Man From London” (2007) (Mr. Nemes’s father, Andras Jeles, is also a director.) With Mr. Tarr, he said, he learned about not only a sense of organic realism and the artistic importance of choosing your battles, but also the centrality of the actor.

For “Son of Saul,” Mr. Nemes found a deeply committed performer in Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet who wrote his first collection about the Holocaust and plays Auslander in the film.

“We did not want to talk about the message of Auschwitz,” Mr. Rohrig said of the film’s aims, speaking by telephone from New York, where he has lived for 15 years. “We wanted to create an experience that works on you on a different level, with your bowels, your intestines. We want you to get the intensity and tempo of the life of a Sonderkommando worker.”

Mr. Rohrig had acted a little in Polish and Hungarian films. He said a major religious change in his life came in the 1980s with a visit to Auschwitz, where he recalls seeing among the prisoner artifacts the same brand of toothbrush as his own.

For the actor, “Son of Saul” transcends the tendencies of many Holocaust films, such as “Schindler’s List,” to seek refuge in survival narratives and good-and-evil clichés. Through the death of a son, his character gets an unexpected emotional release. “Everybody is a zombie already in the camp,” Mr. Rohrig said. “People are already destroyed. They only care about their next meal. But witnessing his son’s death, Saul all of a sudden becomes normal.”

Mr. Nemes first met Mr. Rohrig during a short stint at New York University as a film student, and describes him as “very intellectual but at the same time extremely instinctive and physical.” The rest of the film’s cast is mostly international, part of an effort to suggest what he calls the “Babel of languages” in the chaotic camps.

The director’s close-knit creative team included the cinematographer Matyas Erdely, who also shot Mr. Nemes’s short films and features by the Cannes veteran Kornel Mundruczo, also of Hungary. One of the rare features to use 35-millimeter film, “Son of Saul” was shot in 30 days. “What a first feature can afford,” Mr. Nemes said. The budget of about 1.5 million euros, or $1.65 million, came mostly from the Hungarian National Film Fund and the New York-based Claims Conference.

An old military base on the outskirts of Budapest served as the movie’s location. The burden of history was always present for Mr. Nemes, he said — he and some members of his team had relatives who died in the camps. “Why I don’t have a family right now — it’s a very small family — is because of that,” he said. “You can feel the society being haunted by these traumatic experiences and by never having to face what happened.”

Mr. Nemes, , who grew up partly in Paris, felt an “edge of suspicion” from interviewers when talking about the film on television shows in his home country.

“You can feel that they cannot really connect with the material,” he said. “It’s like: Oh, another Holocaust movie. That’s the best you can get. Then: Why do you have to talk about the Holocaust? Why is it important to you?”

For Mr. Rohrig, he is wary of critics who might object to the very attempt to portray the Holocaust with such fidelity.

“I don’t think any subject matter is off the table when it comes to art,” he said. “I think it can be done. I hope it was done by us.”

For Mr. Nemes, however, the film’s importance will not necessarily lie in such external reactions, but in whether it provokes an emotional response in viewers. The film aims to show “the importance of the inner voice when there’s no more hope,” he said, adding, “We still reaffirm some kind of faith in something — some would say God, some would say this belief in humanity, in something universal.”

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