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BFI London Film Festival 2015 – ‘Son Of Saul’

Son of Saul

Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Screenplay by László Nemes and Clara Royer
Hungary, 2015

Auschwitz, Autumn, 1944. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, one of the cursed work gangs selected by the Nazi genocide machine to assist in the industrial slaughter of undesirables and perceived enemies of their genocidal regime. Ausländer’s horrifying Sisyphean task involves herding the trainloads of men, women and children into the killing chambers, and then clearing the debris before the next doomed arrival. Due to their proximity to the extermination process the Sonder know their own life expectancy is weeks or months at best, branded as their name suggests as  ‘the keeper of secrets’, as any witnesses to such unimaginable crimes cannot be permitted to live and possibly spread the net of knowledge. Stumbling through this film as a pallid corpse, frozen behind the eyes and spiritually obliterated Ausländer bears testament to unimaginable horror stacked upon unconscionable atrocity until the hellish sentence becomes crueler and personal. When  one child miraculously survives the gas he is extracted from the human pyramid and inspected by a curious SS ‘doctor’, a faceless drone who strangles the boy and orders him to be taken to the medical unit for autopsy. As the title suggests Ausländer recognises the victim as his son, sparking within him a dangerous shard of long dormant and suppressed humanity and decency, urging him to divert the corpse from the belching ovens and arrange a rabbi blessed burial so his boy may possibly find some peace in the next world.

As a debut directorial effort from Bela Tarr protégé László Nemes this is an obliterating prologue, although viewers of a nervous disposition should be warned that as the subject matter suggests this is an exceptionally unnerving and harrowing experience. Through Saul’s eyes the audience is immersed in a sulphurous hell on earth, nauseating, gut-wrenching and numbing in the extreme, as the true horror of the holocaust is inflicted with an unrelenting intensity. The sound design alone is a cacophony of industrial thunder, shrieks and chaos, as if the very environment itself was groaning under the weight of the atrocities being inflicted upon its shell. Lower in the mix is a near constant, insanity inducing perpetual din of muttering languages, of distant screams, the solitary crack of another gunshot signalling another victim, another fallen. In a majestic technical cinematic achievement Saul is frozen as the centrepiece of every frame, kept in crystal clear focus, as the exhausting hand-held takes stagger with him from one massacre to the next, the surrounding focal planes kept in blurred osmosis as if the camera itself cannot face the numbing horror which surrounds him and permeates his every waking moment. Röhrig is extraordinary as Saul, walking testament to the capacity of the human will to survive and endure, expressionlessly witnesses his son liquidated and powerless to intervene, his entire purpose subsequently driven by small fragment of humanity, of decency kindling among the darkness in the midst of such suffering and loss.

Twenty years ago Schindler’s List was accused by some as being holocaust-lite, of a Hollywood attuned treatment of one of humanities gravest crimes being positioned not as a tragedy of the six million that died but a few hundred that miraculously lived. Son Of Saul is a stark antidote to these allegations, a horrifying testament to the incomprehensible and still resonant aftermath of the Second World War. This is major statement from an emerging new artist, and one of the most important films of the year.


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