Son Of Saul (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 107 minutes approx.
Any film which chooses as its subject the horrors of the Holocaust is inherently going to be harrowing experience for the viewer, but this bold debut from Hungarian director László Nemes presents us with a palpable and intimate look at this terrible incident from World War II.
October 1944. Jewish–Hungarian Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a prisoner in Auschwitz working as a Sonderkommandos, inmates forced to work disposing of the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers. During one shift, Saul recognises a young boy being removed from the chamber and manages to intercept the body’s delivery to the autopsy room, demanding to take it himself.
There Saul asks the Hungarian doctor Miklós (Sándor Zsótér) not to perform the autopsy so he can give the boy a proper Jewish burial. Miklós agrees but now Saul needs to find a Rabbi to conduct the ceremony, using bribes and the will of rebellious fellow inmates to make this happen without being caught.
Using testimonies from the book The Scrolls of Auschwitz, intense and extensive historical research and Prof. Gideon Greif’s book We Wept Without Tears, László Nemes chooses not to bring us a tale of survival in the traditional sense of concentration camp set dramas, instead using the dedication and strength of a father to honour his dead son – yes the boy is his – as his main purpose.
Shot on 35mm film and in 1.37:1 picture ratio, Nemes keeps the camera close to Saul for the majority of the film, often coming very close to being a POV shoot in the way it moves from sight to sight in line with Saul’s movements. A similar close observer style perspective is found in Aleksei German’s Hard To Be A God, with the key difference being the picture ratio allowing only the central images to be the primary focus.
Amidst the daily toil of shovelling mounds of ashes from cremated bodies, or scrubbing bloodied floors, Saul finds himself skipping from one job line to another in search of a Rabbi. With his only language being his native Hungarian, Saul is not always understood by prisoners from other countries (eight European languages are spoken here) not by his German captors.
With survival a primary objective, Saul encounters a few charlatans willing to exploit his plight to secure their own safety. Luckily there is a network of prisoners who are planning to escape, and Saul finds himself able to move among them to find his Rabbi, as long as he does a few favours in return. Since the Sonderkommandos have access to the belongings of the dead, the exchanging of these as bribes is key to gaining help.
Similar to the aforementioned Russian epic, this film is about creating atmosphere and a tangible sense of being right there in the thick of his ghastly scenario. The acrid smell of the toxic fumes and the blood stained floors almost permeated through the screen, as does the gritty texture of the cloying air in the chambers of the piles of cremated ash.
The sweat, both of nerves and toil, trickles down one’s neck in empathy of the inmates and while most of the true horror takes place off camera, our imaginations are spurred on by Saul’s distraught facial and bodily reactions. The Nazis are more often than not loud voices in the background or ominous figures in our peripheral vision, yet their presence looms over every scene with the same sense of foreboding as death.
By limiting the direct amount of screen time of the Nazis, Nemes leaves us without a central antagonist to pit against Saul and the other inmates, but this is a rare occasion where a singular hate figure isn’t necessary. This isn’t your typical “good vs. evil” tale – the inhuman activities of the camp itself and the finite life span of the inmates are the true antagonists.
Nemes sets out his maverick agenda from the onset by opening is film in the gas chamber, typically the final destination on a Holocaust movie, but the story demands such a bold opening gambit. Again, the grim details are left to our imagination but the fall out and gnarly atmosphere are enough to put us clearly in the picture, allowing the ensuing human nature story to unfold.
The pace never lets up and rather surprisingly the constantly moving camera doesn’t become a nuisance or detraction, itself a prime tool in conveying the tension or chaos of a situation. Despite the story seeming straight forward, Saul and the other inmates endure many hardships and visit many locations within the Auschwitz catchment area, reflecting the protean life of the Sonderkommandos and the cruel efficiency of Nazi caprice.
Having only acted in a TV role in 1989 Géza Röhrig seems like an unlikely, and arguably risky choice for such a demanding role as Saul, one upon which the film is essentially dependant on to engage the viewer as both its guide and focal point. And with Nemes having only previously served as an assistant to Hungarian arthouse auteur Bela Tarr, it is no wonder funding for this film was difficult to obtain.
Fortunately both Nemes and Röhrig aced their individual roles and whatever alchemy occurred between them was heavily rewarded, bagging the Best Foreign Language Oscar among others. Supported by equally dedicated and hard working cast, Röhrig carries the onus of being the centrifugal force of the film with tremendous energy, grace and naturalism in his body language. His haggard face often does little yet conveys so much.
Son Of Saul stands as a visceral and powerful piece of filmmaking because it eschews all of the usual presentation bells and whistles, such as musical cues, multi-camera editing and emotionally manipulating storytelling. Instead it presents us with the raw facts of the matter in an upfront and unpolished way, making for a provocative and heart-wrenching viewing experience.
A sublime debut movie from an exciting new voice in world cinema.
DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio
Q&A With Director László Nemes
Behind The Scenes GoPro Footage
Short Film – “With A Little Patience”
Rating – ****
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