SON OF SAUL (Hungary/TBC/97mins)
Directed by László Nemes. Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Sándor Zsótér, Todd Charmont, Christian Harting and Kamil Dobrowolski.
THE PLOT: In the final days of Nazi Germany, a Hungarian prisoner at a concentration camp is tasked with clearing out the gas chambers, when he discovers a young boy still breathing. Determined to give the boy a proper burial, Saul (Géza Röhrig) sets out on a journey through the various factions of the camp looking first for the boy’s body, then for a rabbi who will help him in his mission.
THE VERDICT: SON OF SAUL is director László Nemes’ first feature length film, and is In Competition for the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Although it would be easy to dismiss Son of Saul as a story that has been told before, there is something here that we have seldom, if ever seen before.
Shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, lead actor Géza Röhrig is in the shot for much of the 97 minute running time. The camera either focuses on his face or the back of his head as he moves through the camps – and occasionally, his point of view. This is a little disconcerting at first, but Röhrig‘s performance is so strong, and his face so expressive, that he carries the pain and fear of the film ably. The rest of the cast is made up of Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Sándor Zsótér, Todd Charmont, Christian Harting and Kamil Dobrowolski.
The story, written by László Nemes and Clara Royer, is a rather simple one, but Saul’s tenacity and determination to do what he set out to do, and his seeming ability to move around the different areas of the camp with relative ease, are a new spin on what could be considered a classic tale. That said, it is the fact that the story is so simple that leads to the film feeling drawn out at times, as we watch Saul drift around, seemingly with no end in sight.
As director, László Nemes made the decision to focus on the lead character, which allows everything else to fade to the background slightly. This leads to a powerful and haunting use of sound and colour, which are more than enough to tell the audience that is happening in the background, without showing us the gore and tragedy that we have seen in other films. Nemes allows the audience to root for the lead character although we are not always sure why – the title may or may not be a giveaway – and it is with him that the film is given life.
In all, SON OF SAUL is a haunting and oddly beautiful film, which deals with a simple story in a powerful way. There are some issues with pacing here and there, but SON OF SAUL is immersive and tragic, with a vein of hope running right through the centre.
Rating: 3/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - Son of Saul
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.0Immersive and tragic
  • filmbuff2011

    Winner of this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, Hungarian film Son Of Saul is an at-times harrowing but always powerful depiction of one man’s need to hold onto his humanity, at a time when humanity meant nothing.

    Saul (Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian Jew who works as a sonderkommando in Auschwitz. He has a temporary job with the Nazis assisting in the mass extermination of his own people, pulling out bodies from gas chambers and preparing them for incineration. He has no other choice, but it will keep him alive until the Nazis eventually put a bullet in him. One day, he discovers that a young boy has somehow survived the gas chamber – only just though. He doesn’t last long though, as the Nazis soon kill him. Instead of disposing of the boy’s corpse, Saul holds on to it and hides it – much to the disliking of his fellow sonderkommando. Like the son he never had, the boy represents a chance for Saul to do some good amid the horrors of the Holocaust. He seeks out a Rabbi among the crowds due to be exterminated, in an attempt to give the boy a peaceful and proper burial.

    There’s a scene in Schindler’s List when a train of Schindler’s women arrive in Auschwitz and are mistakenly sent to a gas chamber, but he intervenes in time to save them. The unbearable tension in that scene is reminiscent of what we observe from a horrified perspective in Son Of Saul. However, director Laszlo Nemes is more interested in telling rather than showing. Shot in the tight, boxy Academy ratio similar to Meek’s Cutoff and Mommy recently, Nemes keeps the focus firmly on Saul. This was part of a pledge that Nemes made with his cinematographer Matyas Erdely and production designer Laszlo Rajk.

    The idea is that the film is told from Saul’s perspective, with the camera right behind him or beside him. The real genocidal horrors are glimpsed in the corners of the frame and are out-of-focus. What we as an audience can imagine is far worse than what Nemes can put onscreen – credit to him for that. Occasionally we get a glimpse of these horrors in focus, like a hellish scene out in the forest with a raging fire, screams and a constant volley of gunshots. It makes for disturbing viewing, but not in a gratuitous way. Nemes never intended to make a horror film, so if anything he is trying to be realistic without shoving in shock value.

    Son Of Saul is masterful filmmaking. It’s narrow view of focus is a clever idea which is interestingly more effective than the traditional approach. Nemes wrings much emotion out of his lead actor, never losing focus of his basic, core humanity. The closing scene feels like a dream, before bringing us back to reality to remind us why we must never forget. Powerhouse filmmaking which simply demands to be seen. ****