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TIFF ‘15: ‘Son of Saul’ weighs the horrors of genocide

son of saul

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

Hungarian director László Nemes’ first feature Son of Saul plunges us into a pit of despair through the eyes of a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners forced to burn and bury corpses during the Holocaust. In 1944 Auschwitz, Saul (musician, actor and poet Géza Röhrig) is living on borrowed time as part of this team on the front lines of the liquidating their own people. With the knowledge that the Sonderkommando are slaughtered after a number of months, Throughout this bloodbath, Saul is intent on salvaging something from his predetermined fate. The result is a singular perspective of heartache over what he cannot do, those who have already been lost and the mental despondency that takes over in situations that are beyond control. Son of Saul weighs the horrors of genocide in a thoughtful manner that cuts language and logical explanations for behavior out of the equation entirely. There are no speeches about morality or failure with death so imminent and around every corner.

Son of Saul doesn’t attempt to visualize the breadth of the Holocaust. The cacophonous sounds of misery speak louder than the blurred images of bodies amassed in gas chambers or graves as Saul keeps quiet and his head down. The camera concentrates solely on him and what he is made to observe. Röhrig’s intense, glassy eyes instruct the viewer on all that he must navigate to stay alive slightly longer in the hopes that he might find a Rabbi to pray with him over the body of a boy who he refers to as his son. It’s a relief that Son of Saul is not preachy or overtly manipulative when it comes to the overwhelming scale and impact that the countless deaths have. We can only glean a smidgen of what Saul knows and feels, and this minimalist approach to loss works as a tool for projecting our own connections onto his drive to give a body its proper measure of respect. Röhrig’s concave physique weaves and dodges in and out of the grip of death with uneasy but fluid motions. The attention to detail is monumental when Saul’s point of view somehow focuses in the circuitous rush to pile and dispatch bodies. One of the best moments involves a thick fog rolling in and out as pictures as are taken and Saul’s vulnerability grows. He helps to hide the camera before anyone notices its use. This expression of subtle rebellion has a dynamic energy that is simultaneously rife with the somber awareness that in all likelihood he will not live to tell his story.

In Saul’s attempts to steal back a sense of dignity, we see the absolute drain of the events on everyone involved. Director Nemes, who worked under Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, Satantango) deftly demonstrates how the sustained anguish has thrown the minds and bodies of the prisoners into a permanent state of disheartened survivalism. Saul sometimes acts without concern for those alive around him, absentmindedly adrift with thoughts of his plan. The ultimately unknowable injury to his psyche is to the benefit of the story as we cannot blame him for being selfish. We are put in Saul’s position as a hapless witness and a cog in a death machine. Son of Saul drags and stalls at points, lost in Röhrig’s melancholic strategy for the boy’s body, but the constant aura of danger re-engages us, making for a suspenseful film fraught with the terror of what humanity can do to itself. The last shot stirringly diverges from Saul in an important way- augmenting his simple, heartrending sentiments buried amongst millions of lost souls.


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