AFI FEST Review: Son of Saul


After seven decades, is there anything left to show or say about the Holocaust? This question is not meant to be callous or insensitive, but cinematically speaking, there have already been several films that have earned their place as near definitive accounts, be they documentaries or narratives. What can any new depictions tell us about the worst human atrocity of the 20th century? We as a species strive to learn from our mistakes, yet manage to destroy ourselves in ways that are not dissimilar from our original sins. It stands to reason that new stories must be told in the hope that we can collectively move forward from them. Winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Son of Saul is as bracing and difficult a viewing experience as its thematic predecessors, but its highly specific visual style gives it a unique identity, one that searches for grace in the very worst circumstances.

In late 1944, the second World War may be on its way to winding down, but in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, there is no end to the daily terror. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is among those who have it the hardest. As a Sonderkommando, he is forced to work for the Nazis, leading his own people to their deaths and worse yet, clean up and dispose of the human remains. It’s an aguish filled job, and Saul has understandably buried his emotions in order to fulfill his duties, all the while knowing that his life will inevitably be extinguished too. However, one day he makes a remarkable discovery: a young boy who miraculously survived the gas chambers. The boy is taken to an SS doctor, who coldly suffocates the child and then demands an autopsy. This sparks something within Saul, taking the child as his own, even though the two have no relation. All Saul wants is to find a way to give the boy a proper burial, rather than allowing the body to be cremated anonymously among the hundreds of others. It’s a dangerous mission, coupled with Saul’s involvement with schemes hatched by fellow captives, who seek to rebel and escape from their unbearable environment.

Son of Saul is the feature directorial debut of Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, which is a considerable feat unto itself. The subject matter alone would be intimidating enough for any director of any experience to tackle, so the fact that Nemes takes it head on with such resolute confidence is impressive from first frame to last. Nemes defines the film with a specialized visual aesthetic, heavily dependent on the cinematography. While the film is not exactly shot in “first person” per se, it is a mere single step removed from it. The camera follows actor Röhrig through every single scene, framing him largely in close up, whether from behind or from the front. The depth of field within the frame is relatively shallow throughout, which may be initially disorienting, as Saul is the only character in focus for much of the film. However, it becomes clear that this visual choice is meant to emphasize the immediacy of the experience and Saul’s subjectivity, intent on closing himself off from feeling anything in these harsh conditions. He allows himself to become engaged only when absolutely necessary, and so the focus in frame broadens accordingly based on his focus. This choreographed dance between both Röhrig and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is even more amazing as longer takes dominate. Röhrig’s face is a careful study in resiliency, even in the face of frequently impossible odds. We’ve seen the horrors of the Holocaust in multiple mediums up to this point, and it’s possible that we’ve grown numb to the violence, but Son of Saul urgently reminds us in deeply intimate, even intensely uncomfortable ways, how vital it is to keep these stories alive.


~ by romancinema on November 11, 2015.

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