I have been putting off writing about Son of Saul for weeks now, mainly because I was not keen to think about the film much, once it was done. Which is very far from being the same thing as saying it is a bad film. It is an astonishing film and it did such a horribly effective job of creating the impression that you were witnessing what really happened inside Auschwitz that, once released, if you are cowardly, as I am, you wanted as much as possible to push the experience from your mind.
Oddly, the technique chosen to conjure the experience so vividly is the maintenance of almost constant blurriness in the back of the shots, where unspeakable things are going on all the time. You can see that hundreds of people are being driven through dank corridors into changing rooms and then shower rooms and that heaps of corpses - or "Stücke" as the German overlords of the camp blithely call them - are all that remains some minutes later. But you can't see the individuals. I suspect this was precisely how those picked out to work as members of zonder commandoes dealt with what they had to witness. The technique heightens the horror somehow.
I suppose one could object to the rather obvious quest plot that gives the film its narrative. You could argue that the film could simply have been about the real event that was the uprising in Auschwitz. However, that would have been less ambiguous than this tale, which leaves the viewer confused and horrified, rather than supporting one side as the goodies and the other as the baddies. The film makes clear that after the Holocaust, we live in a ruined world where there are no goodies and baddies, only an expanded knowledge of the potential humanity has to be wicked.
Not that the Germans are let off, mind you - the scene in which an officer murders a child with his bare hands, observed by his colleagues, is made all the more chilling by being shot as if it were a Vermeer painting. The weird interlude in which a group of German doctors are entertained by the crazed antics of a young officer who mocks the protagonist is equally vile. And then there is the endless ash. And the frenzied night scenes when the camp is overwhelmed by deliveries.
Horrible, horrible. The film reminds us just how horrible, and that cannot be anything but a good thing for a film to do.