Hungarian László Nemes, the debutant of the Official Competition, envelops us in the flames of the Holocaust and with the horror of an intensive and serious horror film, he becomes a serious contender for the Palme d’Or
The Auschwitz concentration camp is in full swing: chosen (and fast expendable) Jewish prisoners, the Kapos, have the responsibility to execute the new “parts” arriving daily. They herd men, women and children into large halls, they help them undress, reassure them, urge them to hurry. They then put them in the gas chambers, pushing them in so as to fit as many as possible, seal the doors and kill them. Their work does not end there. They stack the corpses, burn them, throw the ashes in the river, clean the chamber with brushes and everything is ready for the next batch. A quick and efficient recycling of people.
Saul is a Kapo. Like the rest, he bears a red X on the back of his clothes, to set him apart from the other prisoners, but also to make him an easy target at any time. Inside the camp, where an escape is secretly being organised and while each national Jewish group tries to claim a few more hours of life on the detriment of other groups, Saul is devastated by the horror. He works, kills, cleans, keeping the guilt and terror shut away from his conscience. Until he sees the corpse of a boy and believes him to be his own son. Fighting against every rule and under the constant fear of a gruesome possible execution, he looks to find a rabbi who will pray for the boy and bury him. His goal becomes – since he cannot do anything bigger, or more salutary – to give death the dignity it deserves.
This is László Nemes’ first feature film, the 38-year old Hungarian director who has worked as Béla Tarr’s assistant. His style couldn’t be more different than that of Tarr’s. Nemes makes a film chatacterised by an immediacy that keeps you captivated for hours, choosing, however, some specific and aggressive stylistic forms. The entire film is filmed in a square 40mm format: the protagonist and all that happens are crammed in a small frame, without leaving any room for the viewer’s gaze to escape. The handheld camera follows Saul’s path at a frantic pace, transforming his life story into a staggering thriller, even a horror film, not only because of the film’s content, but also because of its desperate speed.
From the start, Saul and everything he is looking at is in focus – everything else, the hundreds of faceless, naked corpses, the German commanders, even the surroundings, the burning fire, which swallows lives and traces, are blurred. They come in focus only when Saul looks at them to find something. The sound is a masterpiece in itself. The incessant roar of the ‘factory’, the violent voices of Germans and Jewish leaders, the screams of the prisoners create a sonic landscape that not only complements, but often replaces the abominable action taking place out of shot, but resonates inside it.
In this limited but intensive space of action, the figure of Saul, not of the actor, but of the Hungarian poet Géza Röhrig, acquires emblematic dimensions: a ascetic, timeless, ageless, integral, focused, sad figure with a tenacious anxiety to be forgiven. This is László Nemes’ first film, where you are trapped in horror despite resisting stubbornly, brought close to the primitive terror of human madness; a film, which recognises crime and simply asks, finally, for absolution. It is, at present, the first safe bet for this year’s Palme d’Or.