Son of Saul, 2015.
Directed by Lazlo Nemes.
Starring Geza Rohrig, Urs Rechn and Uwe Lauer.
A prisoner forced to help exterminate his people finds a body that he believes is his son and will stop at nothing to give him a proper burial.
Son of Saul opens with a scene that would be the centrepiece of any other WW2 drama about the Holocaust. We’re introduced to Saul, walking into focus towards the camera, shuffling amongst a crowd of people. He guides the crowd into a room as we hear soldiers talking of workhouses and food. Not a word is said between them as they are shuffled into the ‘showers’. But we know the truth. Saul joins a group on the other side of the room as panic sets in – banging on the walls, screams, and cries for help. Saul simply stands in the corner, his face blank. He’s seen this countless times, he’s become numb to it all.
While clearing out the gas chambers, he finds a boy who almost survived, before being suffocated by an officer. Believing him to be his son, he dedicates himself to giving the boy a respectful burial, no matter what the cost.
Son of Saul is a WW2 film that doesn’t gratuitously focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s a smart move, filmed with a tight 4:3 frame that Saul himself mostly takes up; we experience these things alongside him, with everything off into the distance being just out of focus.
The film leaves it to our imaginations, for better or worse. We catch a glimpse of a limb in the corner of a frame, maybe even a muzzle flash, but we never really see anything. The focus on Saul makes this the most visceral and, in a way, realistic portrayal of the Holocaust on film.
Sound also plays a huge part in the film. The chaos that surrounds Saul is suggested by hurried footsteps, orders shouted in German, the roar of furnaces, echoing chambers and, of course, the screaming. The power of suggestion is the films most powerful aspect.
Over the course of the film, we see Saul transform from a dead eyed worker to a focused, dedicated man looking for some sort of redemption for what he’s done. It’s a great performance by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet and actor whose face is enough to show us what he’s been through.
But sometimes, it’s hard to empathise with him. His fellow workers, upon realising they’re set to be executed also, start to plan an uprising in the camp. Suggested through whispered murmurs and one alarming scene where a kapo orders the names of 70 Sonderkommando men that they don’t need anymore, they express disdain for Saul’s goal. “You failed for living for the dead”, one prisoner tells him as he searches a mass of people for a rabbi, while they’re being torched, shot and gassed.
And he’s right. Saul’s selfish act is putting them all at risk, even if they’re set to be killed just days later. Add to that Saul getting out of a few too many dangerous situations and the film could lose some of the audience. But the ongoing intensity, paired with the claustrophobic cinematography, glosses over some of these sticking points. Finding out Saul’s full back story, for example, here suggested in snatches of dialogue, or spending any more time on the workings of the uprising, would grind the film to a halt.
But, despite some leaps of faith as the film progresses, we’re constantly involved in this man’s quest for redemption in the face of true evil. Son of Saul, with its arresting cinematography and sound design, is one of the most affecting films you’ll see all year.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★