Son of Saul

Son of Saul (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Son of Saul,” written by László Nemes and Clara Royer, tells the story of a prisoner in a concentration camp named Saul (Géza Röhrig) who believes he has found the corpse of his son and goes on great lengths to find a rabbi so that the boy can receive a dignified burial. It is a most challenging picture to watch, thematically and technically, but one that is absolutely worth it because the story is specific and it does not shy away from the reality of the Jews’ systematic extermination.

Where Saul goes, the camera follows. His face is in almost always in tight focus while the background is blurred. Though it might require some time to get used to, it is, overall, an effective approach to engage the viewer. The film, one might argue, is about impressions. Barely anything is explained. For example, when we see a pile of naked dead bodies in the blurry background, it is not necessary that we see every detail. Our minds tend to fill in the missing pieces by noticing other details around the hill of corpses sitting outside. There is smoke nearby which means that these bodies are about to be burned.

All the while we study Saul’s face and facial expressions. The camera does not always show what he sees and so we rely on the horror in his eyes to tell a story. Röhrig has a skill when it controlling what his eyes communicate. One minute it is glassy, almost blank, as if Saul’s experiences in the concentration camp have broken his spirit completely, and the next minute it is electrified, alive, full of purpose. But what does not change is the base sadness in there. We get a genuine impression that if the character were to survive the ordeal, his mind could never leave the camp of horrors.

The one scene that will stick with me for a long time is shown within the first five minutes. Although people being led to the gas chambers have been captured on film before, the approach stands out here. It is so clinical—the way the men, women, and children were asked to remove their clothes, informed that hot soup or tea would be waiting for them after getting a shower, and the manner in which they calmly lined up to be murdered. When the doors have been locked from the outside, we hear the desperate screams and pounding from the other side of the wall. All of this is shown before the title card. It implies that the rest will not be easy to sit through.

Like all great films, the picture is unafraid to present details. For example, we learn about what happens when someone miraculously survives from being in the gas chamber. We learn of the term “Sonderkommando.” We learn where the ashes go when so many people have been cremated there is not enough room in the building. We learn what goes on when so many people arrive at the camp all at once and they are required be killed as soon possible because Allies are closing in. I watched the film with both a heavy sadness as well as appreciation that the filmmakers have done their research.

Directed by László Nemes, “Saul fia” offers an experience that is near impossible to forget because a specific technique is married with a specific content. There is no melodrama to be found here but it is very human, well-researched, and uncompromising.

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