SON OF SAUL
Update: After press time, Son of Saul‘s local release was delayed until Friday, Feb. 26.
The Hungarian drama Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and is tipped for best foreign film at the Oscars, deliberately gives an unusually narrow view of the Holocaust. Virtually everything is shown from the perspective of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in an Auschwitz work unit, or Sonderkommando, which is responsible for rounding up prisoners and leading them to their deaths.
One day, while cleaning a gas chamber, he sees the body of a boy, who had barely survived a mass execution before a Nazi doctor finished him off, and decides to give the kid a proper Jewish burial. He then goes on a quest to find a rabbi, colluding with one of his fellow Sonderkommandos, who are brewing a rebellion against their captorsall to do right by the boy.
Saul takes a literally in-your-face approach to showing how concentration-camp prisoners lived through such a hellish nightmare. First-time director and cowriter László Nemes usually has his lens locked on Röhrig’s face, catching all his silent emotions as he tries to do something good for once. The camera is often behind him, catching horror and carnage in the background, blurry and out-of-focus. This conceit is both perplexing and intriguing. We get the sense that there is a more intense, exciting Holocaust film happening all around Saul, who is too focused on his own mission to pay it any mind.
It is impressive how Nemes stages action sequences as background fodder. It also might visually imply how jaded men like Saul must have become, dragging around piles of naked, lifeless bodies on their way to be incinerated. But the movie never stops to take in the atrocity and inhumanity of it all. We and Saul are ceaselessly and aggressively pushed, poked, and led in different directions, with the threat of death at one wrong step always lingering.
Like so many other Holocaust films that aren’t Life Is Beautiful, Saul naturally exudes a bleakness that might leave you unable to rise from your seat after it’s all over. I had to watch it again just to remind myself it wasn’t shot in black-and-white. Though exhaustingly grim, it reminds the viewer that a moment in history this horrific should never, ever be forgotten.
This article appeared in print with the headline, “Unfortunate Son.”