Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, this official submission from Hungary is the presumptive winner. The story involves a Jewish man who is imprisoned but also employed at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp during the Holocaust of World War II. The man is forced to assist in the killing of fellow Jewish men, women and children, as well as the disposal of their bodies. Co-written and directed by László Nemes, its premise promises something very compelling but it succumbs solely to the gimmick of how Nemes presents the film.
Like The Artist or recent films like Mommy (2015) or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), it’s not widescreen in its projection. It was shot on 35mm in the Academy aspect ratio. Instead of a long rectangle in which most movies nowadays are made, this film is as if you’re looking at a square. The difference is that this films feels like it’s being exclusionary, like it’s trying to keep the audience from seeing or even experiencing something by literally cutting parts of the picture and putting black bars on the side of the screen.
Géza Röhrig stars as Saul Ausländer. He’s the Jewish man in question who is imprisoned but also employed at Auschwitz to assist in the killing and disposal of fellow Jewish people. Such men are referred to as Sonderkommando, which is a German word meaning “special unit,” a euphemism for the cruel work imposed upon him.
The idea of the Sonderkommando and this factoid of history that there were Jewish men being forced to work at the Nazi death camps, assisting their murderers to continue the murders, are compelling things, but Nemes fails to explore and delve into this idea and factoid of history. Aside from conveying a general sense of dread and despair, ultimately crafting what is a Holocaust horror film, Nemes really limits himself and self-restricts.
In addition to being presented in Academy aspect ratio, Nemes keeps the camera mainly in close-up of Röhrig’s face, such that the background is completely blurred. His face is in sharp focus and dominates the frame, so it’s mostly filling the frame and the surroundings are mostly a mystery. Nemes does give some medium-shots, so we get some sense of the environment or the space around the protagonist, but mainly the entire film is done in close-up, long and continuous close-ups, either of Röhrig’s face or the back of his head. It’s a feeling of being cramped in a crowded room.
Through some dialogue, we find the thrust of the narrative is Saul discovering that one of the people killed is his own son and he spends the whole movie trying to give his son a proper Jewish burial and not just have his son be another body piled into the incinerator or crematorium.
Nemes makes this choice, which is a bold choice in cinematography. He keeps it somewhat interesting or exciting by constantly keeping Röhrig moving and thus his camera is constantly moving. We’re walking and following Röhrig almost from beginning to end. It’s striking when he stops because it’s rare, but it becomes a bit of a whirlwind when at times I was never sure what was happening.
Because of which, not much is learned about Saul or his son. I missed how old the son even was, if it was even said at all. Aside from being an innocent child who died, I dare say I never really cared about this titular character, and not caring makes this whole thing a bit of a slog. A lot of people accuse Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work as being misery porn. This film seems like the epitome of misery porn.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.
Playing in select cities, including Ritz Five in Philadelphia and Landmark’s E-Street Cinema in Washington, DC.