Outstandingly visceral, shattering in its content and genuinely raw in its artistic form – there has never been a film regarding the World War II so devastatingly real as Son of Saul. The Hungarian drama takes the viewer to the most abominable place that have ever existed, but still manages to regain hope. Hands down, Son of Saul is a masterpiece.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) belongs to Sonderkommando in Auschwitz – he secures prisoners in the gas chamber and removes the corpses. One of the days spent in the camp changes him forever – he witnesses a young boy, who survives the gas chamber. The body of the boy, who is swiftly executed by a nazi doctor, is then taken care of by Saul, who risks his life to bury him properly, taking the dead as his own son.
Holocaust was presented in all kinds of cinematic frame, but the filmmakers usually aimed to provide a wide context of this hellish, hatred-driven machinery of the nazis. The Pianist by Roman Polański or Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg relied on one protagonist, exhibiting enormous suffering of the individual, but with the dramatic events of the war as the background. László Nemes discarded all the previous approaches towards this absolute annihilation – his camera follows Saul in every step, keeping closely as he wanders around Auschwitz, but never revealing too much of the horrid reality. The Hungarian director never leaves the camp, never mentions what actually happens out of the barbed-wired walls. Auschwitz is a distant planet, detached from the reality. There are piles of dead bodies, blood on the floor, fire and ashes, but most of all – there is Saul and his mission. In all that unspeakable horror, a miracle happens – a boy survives the gas chamber, which revives long-buried emotions in the protagonist.
On one hand, Nemes’ film is a truly blistering portrayal of pure hatred and sadism. There is no more space for suffering, cries and begging for mercy, which all merge into one haunting cacophony of Auschwitz. There is only the hypnotizing Saul, the viewer’s silent guide among the dead or those waiting to die. Géza Röhrig’s performance establishes an entirely new approach towards drama acting to me – the actor’s eyes say more about his internally dying humanity than any words spoken. Some might find Saul’s actions completely unintelligible – just as his Sondercommando companion says: “you try to save the dead, but you bury the living as well”. Ready to sacrifice his own life, Saul doesn’t let till the end – proving that the nazis took everything from him, but his dignity. And as depressing, as gut-wrenching and moving as Son of Saul is, in the end we all feel admiration of Saul’s steadfastness. His courage might not be fully understood, but constitutes a beautiful tribute to humanity in its darkest, saddest moment.
The cinematography of Son of Saul is truly masterful too. The film consists of numerous long takes, which reminded me a lot of Come and See by Elen Klimov and a more recent picture, La Peur by Damien Odoul. Due to this excellent camerawork, we feel as if Saul keeps our hand, as we join him in this nightmare and witness the Auschwitz massacre. This documentary approach is strengthened by the lack of any soundtrack too – the sound is only the interior of the crematorium of the camp.
Son of Saul is harrowing in every aspect, opening a new chapter in the history of Holocaust on the big screen. Despite all the horror we witness, Nemes casts a ray of hope. Even in the darkest hour of humanity, there was a man, who fought for dignity, in his own, peculiar way. Let Son of Saul be also a monument of the past and a warning – we all should be reminisced of the hell people created for each other.
UMP Grade: 47.5 / 50
(Cinematography: 10, Plot: 8.5, Acting: 10, Soundtrack: 9, Quaintness: 10)