The story of the Sonderkommando, the "special units" of Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps forced to assist with the exterminations of the Final Solution, has been little-told in the cinema. And it would overstate the case to say that this Hungarian film, which won the second prize at Cannes and the Golden Globe for best foreign film (it is nominated for the same award in Monday's Oscars), redresses that omission.
That is not to say that the film fails on any level. It bears witness to unspeakable horrors and does so unflinchingly, though never in a gratuitously explicit way, but it does not adopt a broad, documentarian perspective.
Its focus and its angle of view are, quite literally, as tight as can be imagined: the main character, Saul Auslander (Rohrig) appears in virtually every one of the shots (reportedly there are only 85), which either zoom in on his face, or stalk him in an over-the-shoulder view so we see what he sees.
Well, almost: cinematographer Matyas Erdely, shooting in the Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which lends the film the grave tone of historical portraiture, maintains minimal depth of field, so the specifics of the horror are almost always out of focus.
This is not from any misplaced sense of decorum: indeed, there are fleeting images of corpses in sharp focus, but they are fragmentary. It's because Nemes is telling a singular, searingly specific story, of one of the perpetrator-victims, to reclaim what Primo Levi famously called "the solace of innocence" that the members of the Sonderkommando were denied by their monstrous assignment. Dubbed "carriers of secrets", they were marked for rapid recycling and lived second by second. Yet Saul has his gaze fixed on the beyond and one teenage gassing victim attracts his attention.
At first we are not sure why: the title offers a clue, but the film is far from unambiguous about the truth of the matter. Still, Saul becomes obsessed with ensuring a decent burial for the boy and finding a rabbi to say Kaddish for him.
We are hauled along on a hellish ride, as Nemes keeps us constantly off balance with blurred action, switching languages and withholding subtitles.
An often gut-wrenching work of precocious mastery, it's as close as the cinema has ever been to the middle of the Holocaust. If you can bear it, you will not soon forget it.
Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sandor Zsoter
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Running time: 107 mins
Rating: R16 (violence, cruelty, content that may disturb) In German, Hungarian, Yiddish and Polish with English subtitles
Verdict: A gut-wrenching work of precocious mastery