'Son of Saul'
Undeniably powerful and formally daring, ‘Son of Saul’ represents a remarkable debut for first time filmmaker László Nemes, a former assistant to Bela Tarr. The Hungarian director didn’t make things easy for himself by tackling the Holocaust in his debut. It’s not simply one of the most difficult settings to explore as drama, but one of the most over-explored subjects in film.
It’s nearly impossible to make a Holocaust movie that feels like it adds something new to the conversation, but Nemes somehow pulled it off. He has created a rich cinematic experiment by portraying a singular and individual exploration of the mass tragedy. ‘Son of Saul’ is difficult to endure and impossible to shake off, yet vital and exciting filmmaking nonetheless.
Nemes tethers his camera to his protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig, previously unknown but not for long). Framed in a tight Academy Ratio, the camera rarely leaves Saul’s face and does so only to shift the audience into his perspective. The focus remains shallow throughout, keeping many of the atrocities surrounding Saul at a fuzzy distance. The effect is a stunning and disturbing visualization of how one would have to block out and conceal the outside world as much as possible to survive in such unimaginable conditions. Saul is a Sonderkommando, one of the select group of concentration camp inmates granted a longer lifespan through hard labor (often involving the disposal of their fellow prisoners’ corpses). That only makes things worse for Saul and justifies the ways in which he shuts out the world further.
The film follows Saul through his horrendous tasks over the course of a 24-hour period in a series of prolonged handheld takes. Side characters slip in and out of the soft focus background, with Saul paying attention to them only as much as he’s capable of enduring. There are murmurs of an inmate uprising that Saul is a part of, but the character even seems numb to that. He’s so beaten down that even a glimmer of hope is unworthy of emotion. Then something finally stirs a little life into Saul. During his horrendous task of clearing bodies out of the gas chamber, he sees the body of a young boy draw what he believes to be a dying breath. He’s instantly convinced that the boy is his child (it’s never clear if this is true) and spends the rest of his day in desperate search of a rabbi who can sanction a proper burial for the boy. This new obsession distracts Saul from his involvement in the escape attempt, but as always, the world moves on without Saul’s direct involvement even though he always finds himself trapped in the middle.
Obviously, ‘Son of Saul’ is a bleak and deeply difficult viewing experience. While Nemes’ distinct filmmaking style keeps many of the on-screen horrors deliberately blurry , the overwhelming weight of the material can become unbearable. There’s nothing particularly manipulative about the filmmakers’ technique, but the long-take and observational style makes the situation personally relatable to viewers while remaining an observational experience in complex ways.
Géza Röhrig’s remarkable performance adds to this effect, with his beaten face and shame-filled eyes more telling of the horrors he’s endured than any tedious back story could possibly offer. He’s in virtually every frame of the film, yet keeps the character at arm’s length from the viewer. We may follow Saul on this journey, but never truly know him. He’s far too emotionally distant for that, hence the beautiful metaphor of Nemes’ soft focus.
Though ‘Son of Saul’ draws viewers so deeply into its difficult story that it can be hard to admire its technique, Nemes has pulled off some extraordinary sequences here. The long takes must have been nearly impossible to stage, but rarely register as show-off technique since the style so vividly recreates the painful reality of the situation. It has been said before that the last act of the film segues into spectacle in a way that might cheapen the dark reality of the piece. Those critics have a point. Indeed, the movie awkwardly starts to feel like a thriller towards the end. However, this material never feels like cheap thrills. Instead, it’s a more natural endpoint to a devastating story that just happens to be heart-poundingly tense in addition to feeling deathly depressing.
It might not be a movie that anyone could claim to enjoy as light entertainment, but ‘Son of Saul’ is a remarkable accomplishment. László Nemes manages to provide a Holocaust film unlike any other that plunges its audience into the painful reality of that experience in formally daring ways. It’s a brutal yet deeply human work of art, something that scars but also enlightens and never cheapens its subject matter.
A new Holocaust film might not be at the top of your Christmas movie list, but ‘Son of Saul’ is such a singular and impressive cinematic experience that it demands attention. Once seen, it will never be forgotten. László Nemes instantly announced himself as a remarkable filmmaker with his debut and this will be a damn difficult act to follow.