Our “Son of Saul” movie reviews.
Son of Saul
Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer
Directed by László Nemes
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.
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.