Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, and some Graphic Nudity
(Hungarian/Polish/German with English subtitles)
Directed by: Laszlo Nemes
Written by: Laszlo Nemes & Clara Royer
Starring: Geza Rohrig, Sándor Zsoter, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn & Todd Charmont
Out of all the nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, SON OF SAUL has been constantly ranked as the frontrunner. It’s not exactly hard to see why. The film is a dark, depressing Holocaust drama. That in and of itself would likely garner a win. However, it certainly helps that SON OF SAUL is a damn fine film and doesn’t simply retread material seen in other well-regarded films set around the Holocaust. Instead, SAUL is shot in a way that gives the viewer an intimate connection with the main character. As a result, his day-and-a-half-long story feels like a grueling, immersive, and deeply emotional experience. SON OF SAUL is about the last remnants of humanity trying to survive in a horribly inhumane place and time.
Auschwitz 1944. Saul Auslander is a Jewish Sonderkommando. This means that he’s part of a team in charge of cleaning up the gas chambers and disposing of countless dead bodies (constantly referred to as ‘pieces’) in the ovens. It’s a grim job and the teams of Sonderkommandos know that their days are numbered. Saul is surrounded by constant misery and hopelessness on a daily basis. However, he finds a chance to regain some brief dignity when he discovers a boy in the gas chambers who resembles his son. In an effort to give the deceased child a proper burial, Saul must risk his life to find a rabbi and keep the corpse hidden from the SS officers running the camp.
SON OF SAUL is not an easy movie to watch for rather obvious reasons. The film is set in arguably the most horrific concentration camp that existed during WWII and first-time director/writer Laszlo Nemes doesn’t shy away from the grim details. However, the style in which Nemes tells his story makes it so much more hard-hitting as he shoots the entire film in a 1:37 ratio. There’s rarely a shot that doesn’t focus on Saul or remain in close proximity of him. As a result, the horrors of the concentration camp are largely left to the sides of the screen, out-of-focus or entirely out-of-frame. This being said, there is still constant disturbing imagery, a suffocating sense of tension, and a depressing bleakness surrounding the whole film. One sequence will haunt my brain forever (involving a place simply known as “the pits”), but Nemes knows that what our imaginations create can be far worse than anything he could possibly show us on the screen and uses this to his advantage. The film isn’t about shock value though as the entire story revolves around one man trying to hold on to the last string of his dignity with tons of obstacles being thrown into his path.
The character of Saul might seem slightly disconnected at certain points in the story, but one could easily attribute this to just how traumatized he is from enduring everything he’s been through. The side characters can occasionally be hard to tell apart as there is a subplot occurring about a secret plan among the Sonderkommandos, but this is not the main focus of the film. The relationship between Saul and his son(?) is kept deliberately ambiguous through the running time and is likely to spur many interesting conversations afterwards. These foggy details and not having every plot detail spelled out on the screen could potentially frustrate some viewers, but I felt the story’s ambiguity only strengthened the film as it let me speculate on what certain scenes could potentially mean.
On sheer technical prowess alone, SON OF SAUL is fantastic. The film looks stunning and the amazing sound design brings 1944 Auschwitz to horrific life on the screen. The performances are slightly at arms distance as Saul can sometimes be a bit hard to read, while other side characters seem to blend together. I felt the deliberate ambiguity, overall sense of hopelessness, and story’s emotionally human core significantly elevated the film in my eyes. The way in which the cinematography adds an intimate layer to an already emotional and devastating story makes for an even more powerful viewing experience as well. SON OF SAUL is a difficult movie to take and you’ll likely walk away deeply depressed, but I completely recommend this film as a modern near-masterpiece.