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Lionel Cironneau, Associated Press
From left, actor Todd Charmont, director Laszlo Nemes, screenwriter Clara Royer, actors Geza Rohrig, Urs Rechn, and Levente Molnar pose for photographers as they arrive for the screening of the film Saul Fia (Son of Saul) at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 15, 2015.

CANNES, France — A Hungarian film that takes viewers into the hellish heart of the Holocaust has left Cannes reeling.

"Son of Saul," the first feature from director Laszlo Nemes, has become an early favorite to win the Palme d'Or and has been praised for reimagining the way the Holocaust is depicted onscreen.

The Hollywood Reporter called the film "remarkable — and remarkably intense," while Variety judged it "terrifyingly accomplished." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw said it was "devastating and terrifying" and praised its "gaunt, fierce kind of courage."

It's rare for a director's first film to be chosen for Cannes' main competition, rarer still for it to be met with such an enthusiastic response.

Cinematographer Matyas Erdely said Friday the challenge for the filmmakers was "how to show things that are not possible to show."

"The genius idea of Lazlo's was that we just won't show things that cannot be shown," he told reporters. "Basically our approach was to exclude everything that is not fundamental to our story."

"Son of Saul" focuses on an Auschwitz death camp Sonderkommando — one of the Jewish prisoners forced to help dispose of the corpses of those killed in the gas chambers. The Sonderkommandos were given better food and living conditions than other inmates but were inevitably executed after a few months to prevent them from revealing the secrets they knew.

Nemes, who has worked as an assistant to Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, focuses his film almost exclusively on Saul (Geza Rohrig), a character who undertakes a single-minded plan to offer one dead boy a proper burial. The horrors of the concentration camp are not hidden but they unfold in the background, or off to the side of the screen.

"We thought that less was more," the 38-year-old Nemes said, explaining his decision to let viewers' imaginations fill in the gaps, aided by an unforgettably evocative soundtrack. "What was important for me was to make a film about this hellish experience in a different way. ... We wanted to boil everything down to the dimension of a single human being."

"Son of Saul" offers neither hope nor redemption, and many viewers found watching it a draining experience.

Rohrig — a New York-based Hungarian poet who fills almost every frame of the movie — said his biggest challenge was to play a character whose horizons and emotions have withered under brutal conditions.

"The only way to remain sane and live this type of life was to cease to be a human being, to be detached from your emotions," Rohrig said. "The challenge of the character was to dance in a very, very small area, in a very minimalist way."

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