Son of Saul (2015) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Screenplay: Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
Review published February 19, 2016
While most viewers find it hard to watch depictions of the atrocities that occurred in the German concentration camps in World War II, Son of Saul puts us as close to them as we can get by having us follow, within a couple of feet, one character who remains in the proximity of some of the worst crimes against humanity in recorded history. That's not to say that Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes' film is out to shock you with graphic and grisly displays, as it does shield us from witnessing the most horrific of the acts committed, through the benevolent use of hazy focus, but we know enough about what's going on to still feel a palpable sense of nausea when it occurs. It's that suffocation of sickness that is all-pervading that makes Son of Saul a potent re-exploration of a kind of movie most viewers are too unwilling to choose to enthusiastically witness for a night out at the movies. For those who feel it's important to never forget, it's a grim a reminder as they come, adept and potent enough to secure an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in a Foreign Language.
The film showcases a special type of prisoner in the death camps known as the 'sonderkommandos', who would, under penalty of death, assist with the rounding up of other prisoners to put into the gas chambers, sift through their clothing for valuables, and also dispose of their bodies, which are subsequently burned into ashes. We follow one sondercommando called Saul (Rohrig), a Hungarian of Jewish descent, who is tasked with the nightmarish responsibility that will likely only grant him a few extra months of life, as they learned too many secrets to keep alive for long. During one of the gas chamber sessions, he discovers a young boy who manages to survive the extermination, only to have the Germans make sure it isn't for long. The Germans want to study the body further, but Saul decides he won't let this happen, eventually coming to the determination that the child should have a proper burial with a Rabbi to deliver some final words. Saul risks his life, as well as of many others, to try to find such a man in the midst of all of the chaos, eventually getting caught up in a potential uprising that might mean an end to the nightmare for many in the camp.
Shown in 4:3 aspect ratio similar to the handheld cameras of the era in which the film is set, the claustrophobia-inducing camera follows Saul around almost as if he were filming his entire journey through Auschwitz with a selfie stick, giving us the kind of third-person perspective rare to find outside of a modern video game. Saul stays in focus, while the rest of what's going on around him is shown with a much more judicial eye, keeping some of the horrors blurry, but occasionally giving us a peek on other players within the nightmarish prison, from fellow sonderkommandos, doomed prisoners, and intimidating guards. Saul's stoic demeanor suggests how deadened the men feel at witnessing all of the agony of murder of men, women and children on a mass scale, unable to feel anything at all anymore as a coping mechanism to get them through another day.
Son of Saul is one of those movies that I'll never watch again, mostly because of the unpleasant story that is heavy and depressing to think that it actually happened, even if it avoids being overtly graphic. It's definitely not entertaining to be put right into the middle of the action, deliberately, to experience what it must have been like to set up so many people to their slaughter in Auschwitz day in and day out. However, I'll still strongly recommend it for the quality of the craftsmanship involved, as well as the respect for the subject matter, continuing to remind us why we should be diligent in fighting against fascism and intolerance, and to make sure that we never put someone into power with the predilection to scapegoat an entire race, religion, or political persuasion as the root cause of the world's ills.
©2016 Vince Leo