PARIS — How do you find a fresh perspective on the Holocaust? In his first feature, “Son of Saul,” the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes chose to depict the enormity through the specific. For most of the 107-minute fiction film, the camera remains fixed on the face of one inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau as he races around the death camp trying to bury a boy he believes is his son.
The film, which opens in the United States on Friday, won the grand prize, or second place, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, rare for a first-time director, and has set off intense debates among critics about the moral implications of Mr. Nemes’s aesthetic choices. The film is Hungary’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race, where it has been gaining momentum after strong receptions at the Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals.
Mr. Nemes, whose grandparents lost family members at Auschwitz, said he had been frustrated with Hollywood’s often schmaltzy renderings of the Holocaust, with their insistence on finding heroes and uplifting stories — he singled out Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as a prime example — and said he had wanted to make something new.
“We definitely try to widen the grammar of film language with this film,” Mr. Nemes, 38, said in a recent conversation via Skype from his home in Budapest. “It doesn’t take the existing, widely accepted language for granted.”
Instead, Mr. Nemes said, he wants to go against the reductive didacticism of television, which he finds rampant, and use film to explore ambiguity. Today, he said, there’s a tendency “to make sure that the audience understands continuously and totally, so that means that there’s no more journey for the audience, nothing is hidden, everything is explained.” He added, “There’s nothing magical about it.”
“Son of Saul” is filmed in long, restless takes, with no soundtrack besides the grim cacophony of a death camp — the slamming of doors, the sifting through possessions — and is set over the course of a day and a half in October 1944. It follows Saul Auslander, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the Jews forced to dispose of the human remains from the gas chambers, as he tries to rescue a dead boy’s body from meeting the fate of the ovens.
Mr. Nemes wrote the script with his friend Clara Royer, a French novelist, after stumbling on a collection of testimonials by members of the Sonderkommando. The film did not secure any financing from France or Israel — Mr. Nemes was an unknown and his subject too risky, he said — and most of the 1.5 million euro budget (about $1.58 million) came from the Hungarian National Film Fund. The New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany also contributed money.
The film plays out on the face of Saul Auslander, a debut film performance by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet whom Mr. Nemes met while studying at New York University’s film school. During the 28-day shoot, he had Mr. Rohrig rehearse for hours before filming takes, three to four minutes each, with a 35-millimeter camera placed about 20 inches from his face.
“I had to be superfocused, because every little bit of change” mattered, Mr. Rohrig said. “Like on the surface of water — even if you blow the water, you can immediately see, it shows everything.”
Mr. Rohrig, 48, who took a leave from his job teaching Jewish studies at a Brooklyn private school to promote the film, volunteers for a Jewish burial society. He spent months visiting Auschwitz as a student in Poland in the 1980s and wrote a book of poems about it. He said he regarded the Sonderkommando as victims, not perpetrators, adding that they were the only Jews in the camp to understand that they faced certain death and that his acting had to reflect that knowledge.
“I couldn’t be like a peacock and show all my feathers,” Mr. Rohrig said. “I had to be this zombie robotic living-dead person, and on the other hand, I couldn’t become boring, so I had to compensate with the persistence, the intensity.”
Writing about “Son of Saul” in The New York Times from Cannes, the critic Manohla Dargis called the film “a radically dehistoricized, intellectually repellent movie,” and said that the focus on Saul comes at the expense of broader context.
Mr. Nemes said that his aim had been to narrow the scope of the film to capture the vastness of the Holocaust. “Because it takes place much more in the imagination than on screen,” he said in a conversation in Paris this fall. “Whereas when you show frontally, you only reduce the scope of it. So making it small actually makes it much bigger.”
“Son of Saul” has won praise from Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 documentary, “Shoah,” Mr. Nemes had grown up watching, and who in 1994 had famously written about “Schindler’s List” that the Holocaust was “unrepresentable” in a fiction film.
In an interview at his home in Paris, Mr. Lanzmann, 90, gave “Son of Saul” and Mr. Nemes his blessing. “I think it’s a very new film, very original, very unusual,” Mr. Lanzmann said.
“It’s a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando,” he added. “It’s not at all melodramatic. It’s done with a very great modesty.”
Other French intellectuals have also weighed in. The philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman wrote a 25-page open letter to Mr. Nemes that has been published as a small book. It begins: “Your film, ‘Son of Saul,’ is a monster. A necessary, coherent, beneficial, innocent monster.”
“Son of Saul” opened in France on Nov. 4 to largely positive reviews and a strong box office, until the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks sent a chill across Paris that has not lifted.
In Hungary, it was well received by critics and sold 100,000 tickets, a record for an independent film there. But critics were stunned by the silence of Hungarian officials about the success of a film so heavily underwritten by the state, a silence they saw as tied to Hungary’s reluctance to face its complicity in the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944.
Mr. Nemes said that he had hoped more people would have seen his movie. “In Hungary, 100,000 is a lot for a Hungarian film, but why isn’t it like 500,000 people or a million, given that Auschwitz is the biggest Hungarian cemetery?” he said, adding that making the film had helped him reconnect with his Jewish heritage.
(The film also provoked the ire of a member of Parliament from the far-right Jobbik party, Elod Novak, who in 2013 wrote on Facebook that he was incensed it had received public financing and said that his party would “put an end to the Holocaust industry in filmmaking.”)
Born in Budapest, Mr. Nemes moved to France at 12 with his mother. He studied history at the Institut d’Études Politiques, or Sciences Po, in Paris, with stints at American universities, and is a highly informed and often ironic observer of European politics, trilingual in Hungarian, French and English.
After his brief time at N.Y.U., he worked as an assistant to the Hungarian director Bela Tarr for his 2008 film, “The Man From London.”
Still, Mr. Nemes arrived at Cannes a complete unknown and left with some critics declaring that “Son of Saul” was the strongest film in competition. At the closing-night party, the jury presidents, Ethan and Joel Coen, offered him their congratulations, while his mother looked on, stunned and beaming.
Mr. Nemes had wanted the film to make an impact, but he said he could not have predicted its success. “I hope it stays with people, so that it becomes personal,” he said. “People have to project themselves into this film.”