Published on February 4th, 2016 | by Dan Gvozden0
SON OF SAUL – REVIEW
While the size of the screen in Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul is uncharacteristically small compared to the modern standard, replicating screen-sizes of long-gone eras of filmmaking, there seems to be a fully-realized world beyond the frame we are only allowed brief glimpses of. Perhaps it is Nemes’ attempt to shield his audience from the incredible horrors of the real world setting he has faithfully recreated, that setting being the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, a major site of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question” where Jews from German-occupied Europe were killed in showers by pesticide gas in numbers that grew to over a million.
Shot almost entirely in handheld, over-the-shoulder close-ups with a distorted focus that keeps the terrors of Auschwitz blurry, Mr. Nemes presents death and genocide but also
allows audiences to remain detached, as if observing a hazy nightmarish tour through the circles of hell. So too detached was the contested role of the Sonderkommando at the Auschwitz camps, who as Jewish slave laborers were kept alive only so long as they assisted in guiding their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and cleaning up their corpses and personal belongings afterwards.
That’s where Son of Saul finds its protagonist Saul, also a Sonderkommando, who suspects he is at the end of his time in Auschwitz after rumors begin to surface that it could be tomorrow that the Nazi commanders will order both he and his fellow Sonderkommandos to be executed. The camera never leaves Saul’s side, and rarely looks away from his back or face, a limited viewpoint that locks viewers into the immediate moment. It is in that moment, the present tense, that Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos live, thinking of escape or, in Saul’s case, the proper burial of a boy who may or may not be his son, even when the two goals eventually become counterproductive.
Actor Geza Rohrig disappears into the role of Saul, adding further credence to the three-dimensional reality of the Auschwitz location. While Mr. Nemes spends the entirety of Son of Saul trained on Mr. Rohrig’s honest face, audiences are given little to no insight into his thoughts, intentions, or goals. Instead we witness his emotionless veneer of a face hold back his boiling emotions until they slowly begin to sneak out.
Son of Saul works best as a primary experience of the Holocaust, its horrors laid bare with no trace of fantasy, moral lessons, or triumphant victory. In piles of ghostly-pale flesh, lifeless bodies fill the screen and combined with the soft-focus, visual effects they run the risk of becoming nothing more than background props, except for the fact that they are clearly human. Yet, Mr. Nemes’ limited visual emphasis signifies strongly that every life involved distinctly mattered, forgoing the big picture horror that one typically associates with the Holocaust – six million Jewish deaths – in favor of the humanizing, individual experience.
It is difficult to label a film with the content and subject matter of Son of Saul as entertaining, but the film works primarily as an experience rather than as a political or moral allegory, such as Schindler’s List. As a historical thriller, Son of Saul is exciting, surreal, and terrifying but also familiarly structured and realized within a common filmic narrative structure. This familiarity is no fault of the director but merely a reflection of how well trodden a setting the Holocaust has become in cinema. Few films about genocide will inspire multiple viewings and Son of Saul is no different, by emphasizing harsh feeling and raw emotion over lingering questions and intuitions into one of history’s darkest chapters Son of Saul avoids moralizing in favor of pure humanity, good and evil.