It’s easy to understand the gut reaction that there’s no new way to approach a drama about the Holocaust, or that it’s an easy grab for emotional weight. But Lázsló Nemes finds a gripping perspective in his story of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew working in Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando workforce when he becomes obsessed with one dead boy that he identifies as his son, determined to secure a ritual Jewish burial for the body. Nemes’ prowling extended takes rarely feel like showy flourishes, instead creating a unique sense of the concentration camp as a physical space. And that physicality extends to the focus on the horrifying tasks given to the Sonderkommando—scrubbing down the showers in which Jews are gassed; shoveling out the ashes from the ovens—that emphasize the place as an assembly line for destroying human lives. Röhrig’s haunted, dead-eyed performance adds intensity to his single-minded quest, one that even ends up costing others their lives, as one man who now exists only to facilitate destruction tries to find purpose in treating at least one of those lives as something that deserves respect.
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