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New Release Review - SON OF SAUL

A Jewish captive in a Nazi death camp attempts to arrange a traditional burial for a boy he believes to be his son.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Laszlo Nemes

Starring: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont



At its best, Son of Saul resembles a prison camp take on the similarly grim Ukrainian sign language drama The Tribe. At its worst, the film's stubborn aesthetic feels like a gimmick - 'Hardcore Henry's Holocaust'.


Director Laszlo Nemes' striking feature debut opens with an out of focus shot as a group of blurry bodies walk towards the camera. One man, Saul (Geza Rohrig), walks into focus as the camera frames him in a medium close up. It's from this vantage point that we will follow Saul for the vast majority of the film, the character almost constantly onscreen save for a few moments when he appears to get momentarily lost in some chaotic action, the camera bustling around to reframe him.


Saul wears what initially looks like a large red V on the back of his tattered jacket, but on the few rare glimpses of the man in wider shots, we see it's merely the top half of an X. He's a marked man, a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, 1944, the stage where the Nazis know the end of their reign is nigh and are setting about exterminating as many Jews as possible.

Saul is a survivor in the most horrifying sense of the word, a member of the Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners whose job is to dispose of the corpses of gas chamber victims. For this, the Sonderkommandos are granted a meagre daily meal and a few extra months of survival (it could hardly be called life).

In the film's intensely disturbing opening sequence, we watch Saul and his fellow 'workers' perform their duty with the ruthless efficiency drummed into them by their Nazi wardens. Saul shows no emotion as he drags the bodies of men, women and children out of the 'showers' like trimmed carcasses in an abbatoir. He's clearly been here a while, and the circumstances have broken him, but something stirs in him when he witnesses a young boy put to sleep by a Nazi doctor after somehow surviving the gas chamber. Saul claims to believe the boy is his estranged son, and becomes determined to give the child a proper Jewish burial, despite the circumstances.


Nemes' decision to shoot the entire movie in one specific style, constantly following his protagonist in a manner that falls somewhere between Alan Clarke and a video game, is the latest in a trend of what could be considered 'method directing' (see also Birdman, The Revenant, Victoria). Common thinking suggests that there is no one correct way to shoot an entire movie, and that each moment of each scene should be dealt with in the manner that befits it, but Nemes stubbornly sticks to his thesis here, and while initially immersive, the longer the narrative plays, the more distracting and visible the artifice becomes.

At its best, Son of Saul resembles a prison camp take on the similarly grim Ukrainian sign language drama The Tribe. While its characters speak, the circumstances don't allow for any extended conversations, and information is passed around and conveyed to the viewer in small chunks, asking us to piece it all together gradually. At its worst, the film's stubborn aesthetic feels like a gimmick - 'Hardcore Henry's Holocaust' - and while Nemes is no doubt working with the best intentions, the fact that the film draws so much attention to its technical mechanics feels a little distasteful given the subject matter.


It's no doubt a fascinating story however, and the ever present Rohrig excels in guiding us through this horrific milieu with a convincing portrait of a man who knows it's too late to save his own soul but maybe not that of his 'son'. Thematically, it's far from an easy watch, and the very particular stylistic choice doesn't offer any olive branches, but Son of Saul is further proof, along with The Tribe and White God, that Eastern European cinema is enjoying one of its most innovative eras.
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