A blurry out of focus 4:3 academy ratio image, we see a shape coming closer to the camera untill the face of the main protagonist, Saul Ausländer, comes into focus. The first shot of the film is not yet over, it continues for several more minutes and sticks to Saul and won’t let go of him for almost the entire film.
Once the camera has locked onto its protagonist the soundscape also starts to capture the increasingly tense atmosphere of the concentration camp where the new arrivals are being brought to the gaschambers. Our protaganist is part of the so-called Sonderkommando, Jews that were forced to help in the camps and thus with the destruction of their own people. The biggest horror remains out of focus while Saul remains up close and in focus, the soundscape fills in what the mostly blurry background is suggesting.
The beginning is like an extremely intense documentary depiction of the daily life (or better, lack of it) in a concentration camp. Jews arriving, undressing themselves , being chased into the gas chambers, being gassed, being dragged dead out of the gas chambers to be incinerated. Their clothes are being searched for valuables, all identification papers are to be destroyed, all signs they ever existed to be erased. The gas chambers are to be cleaned of the puke and excrements that were deficated due to the gassing process so they will be clean again for the next arrivals.
At a certain stage a young boy is found still alive among the dead, only to be suffocated by a german soldier. Saul -although it is suggested he may never have had a son of his own- is convinced the boy is his son and is determined to give him a proper burial. He therefore needs to prevent an autopsy to be performed on the boy (ordered by the german soldier) and the incineration to take place. He also needs a rabbi to say the kaddisj during the burial. A human act during the most inhuman of circumstances.
If the film has any weaknesses it’s during the scenes of some of the unlikely actions and circumstances under which Saul has to undertake his quest. Technically the film is an achievement of the highest cinematic order. The focus puller deserves at least a month of holiday for his superb efforts. The study of its sound design will more than likely become obligatory in many a filmschool. Why this film did not win the Palm d’Or will remain a mystery forever, certainly since the winner ‘Dheepan’ was not the best film Jacques Audiard ever made. It’s probably one of those instances were a director won because he’d been unjustly deprived of the Palm before. Now a future jury will have to undo this injustice, more than likely creating another.