Son of Saul, 2015.
Directed by László Nemes.
Starring Géza Röhrig, Lvente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Sándor Zsótér, Marcin Czarnik, Uwe Lauer and Christian Harting.
Auschwitz, 1944: a Jewish Hungarian, who burns the corpses of his own people, recognises a young boy from the crematorium and seeks a Rabbi for a proper burial.
The film opens with text to contextualise its story. In its confidence and respect for the audience, it doesn’t waste its runtime on the historic facts and the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust – most patrons entering this picture will be acquainted with such knowledge. On such an extensively covered chapter in history this film offers a bleak experience of human endurance, and is stark reminder of why it’s important to remind ourselves of this.
It begins out of focus, in a tranquil setting of birds chirping, and a moment of relative peace; then a whistle blows to break the serene landscape. Coming from the trees and into focus is our protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) who is positioned in the frame in a close-up. The film remains in this shot composition and follows him in a hand-held, shaky-cam aesthetics as he walks toward and alongside a confused and scared crowd coming off the trains. With minimal dialogue, the audience are drawn into his space, and for the audience to understand the situation through him. As with the opening text, filmmaker László Nemes assures the audience will understand. This close-up remains so throughout, and in refusing let the camera, and the audience, to wander off we experience the horror firsthand with Saul. And, through his numb(ing) expressions, we are called solely experience.
In the background the objects, the people, and the scenery oscillate in and out of focus, with their pertinence dependent on the narrative and on Saul. For example, Saul’s main role in the camp is to assist hording the unsuspected Jewish people into the ‘showers’, however, as the film unfolds, he is (sometimes literally) thrown into other duties that the Nazi officers and personnel deem fit. This uncertainty of Saul’s fate emphasises the omnipotent danger of his plight; whenever a person is focused in from his periphery, one responds like Saul – cautious, yet distant; almost waiting for death.
Saul’s hardened self against this mechanised chaos is all on display in his cold, stern manner, and his seemingly despondent facial expressions. Considering the film consists largely of close-ups, Géza Röhrig exerts a highly physical performance; his hasty, machine-like efficiency in carrying out tasks and his frantic, yet sniper-like precision in locating important materials culminate to reveal his survival instinct.
This story of Saul seeking a Rabbi to bury the boy is understandably about the dignity of human identity. Running parallel to this is more than the horrors of life inside a concentration camp, but it’s about how such conditions aim to destroy such dignities. The corpses are derogatorily referred to as ‘pieces;’ a title that is adopted by their fellow Jewish prisoners. This degradation goes further as to take on a physiological level, notably in an exchange about women: after Saul dismisses such banter, the man responds, “You used to talk about women,” to which Saul glumly retorts, “I don’t remember.” This omission of joy, of desire, and of attachment is replaced by an unyielding determinism to survive, to bury the boy, and to escape the death camps.
Son of Saul is a horrifying experience that plunges its audience into the abyss of Nazi death camps. With long single shots in close proximity to Saul, the audience directly stare into the mechanised evil of the Nazi’s objective, and it is only through Saul and his allegiances that we are offered a grimly veiled glimmer of hope.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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