Directed by Laszlo Nemes
Written by Laszlo Nemes and Clara Royer
After a kick-off day with some alright films, variously peddling frivolous contrivance or social awareness rehash, Saul Fia (Son of Saul), the third film in the official competition, finally delivers an overdose of the goosebumps absent so far. An all-too-real horror film for grown-up audiences by first-time director Laszlo Nemes, Saul Fia should at least scoop the Caméra d’Or award for first film and a best actor prize for newcomer Géza Röhrig’s performance.
Géza Röhrig stars as concentration camp prisoner Saul Auslander, a member of a Sonderkommando in charge of rummaging through the belongings of new arrivals destined for the gas chambers and assisting with cremation, burial and other corpse (or “pieces” as they are called in camp jargon) disposal tasks. We never learn much about the taciturn Saul, except that he is Hungarian and possibly a former watchmaker. But from the first sequence till right before the end, Saul will inhabit virtually every frame of this frenetic race to save the dead. After a routine transport is sent for gassing, a young boy fails to be suffocated in the gas chamber, prompting a Nazi officer to finish him off by hand (“only the second case to survive the gassing”) and order an autopsy of this miracle of albeit short-lived survival. The only problem is that Saul decides to give the boy a proper religious burial – hence the body needs to be intact and a rabbi needs to be found in extremis. The entire film follows Saul over the course of a day in his quest to bury this boy, who turns out to be his illegitimate son.
And what a quest this is: not for a second will we leave Saul’s point of view and not for a second will we be allowed a breather. In what is one of the most intelligently made ‘Holocaust’ films so far (as the author would probably reject such a label and rightly so), the first-time director takes us on a descent into hell, where death has more meaning than life – Saul’s unspoken, unyielding, bullish determination to give the boy a proper burial permeates every frame and gains epic proportions. His life, already meaningless, has found a final purpose and no risk will be too great to put the dead to rest. The plot therefore turns the concentration camp trope upside down: where we are accustomed to a fight for survival, “Saul’s Son” is about the significance of the dead and the perverse pre-eminence of death over life in the universe of the Sonderkommando.
The direction is also untypical of films set in concentration camps – hardly an establishing shot, extremely tight focus on Saul, making for a nauseating mix of claustrophobia and paranoia, while the rest of the field is either blurred or in constant movement, handheld camera that jerks and jostles around cinema-vérité style as Saul makes his way around each successive peripeteia of his doomed task – save his son’s corpse, dig a grave, find a rabbi to recite a burial prayer, all while trying to stay alive. The hyperrealism is also supported by a magnificently detailed sound design, making the audience not merely hear, but virtually experience the atmosphere of the camp, and a frenzied editing that keeps up a constant suspense and allows for a degree of empathy with the main character that would otherwise have been hard to achieve given the paucity of the lines he has. Indeed, nothing in the virtuoso direction of Saul Fia suggests this is a first feature.
Apart from the razor-sharp direction, it is Géza Röhrig performance that allows this darkest of human tragedies to transcend into a realm of, for lack of a better word, luminosity, in the final and only frame in which Saul smiles. The philosophical interpretations of ‘sacrificing the living for the dead’ as a fellow Sonderkommando prisoner puts it, are myriad and they are never expounded upon by Saul, but this absurd logic is of course perfectly suited to the concentration camp world order. Saul’s desperate attempt to give his son in death what he could not give in life is rendered by Géza Röhrig both with heart-wrenching pathos and utter dignity.
Saul Fia is likely to be the most singularly indispensable film of this year’s festival, dwarfing the rest of the contenders so far with its perfect dose of humane intelligence and magisterial execution.