SON OF SAUL (Hungary/15A/107mins)
Directed by László Nemes. Starring Géza Róhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergó Farkas, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting.
THE PLOT: With what seems like one endless shot, we join Saul (Róhrig) as he goes about his daily job in Auschwitz-Birkenau, leading a large group of Jews, first to a changing room, and then, to the showers. Where they are soon banging on the doors to get out as Saul starts systematically taking away all their clothes. Saul knows it’s best if he keeps to himself as much as humanly possible, but his survival routine is thrown when he discovers the corpse of what he believes to be his son. Determined that the boy should have a proper Jewish burial rather than be simply thrown into the ovens means Saul has to break many of the rules he so meticulously follows…
THE VERDICT: Telling the story of the holocaust through the experience of just one man works wonders here for first-time writer/director Laszlo Nemes. The challenge of taking not only a grim slice of 20th century history and capturing its true horror in just over and hour-and-a-half but also taking on a subject that cinema has long been tackling without appearing to be treading on overly-familiar ground is met here with a truly engaging film.
Not that Son Of Saul is an easy watch – in truth, how could it be? Do we really want another Life Is Beautiful? Another The Day The Clown Cried? Any movie about such a dark blot on our planet should be difficult, should be troubling. We stay mercifcully close to Saul through, Nemes movie at times seeming like a perverted take on Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Whenever the camera does pull back from Saul’s face, the focus usually kills any chance of the outside world coming fully into view.
It’s a highly effective approach, and it’s clear why the Cannes committee were happy to put this first-timer in their competition last year. Be prepared to be moved.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Paul Byrne

Son of Saul
Review by Paul Byrne
4.0Be prepared to be moved
  • 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. ****