SON OF SAUL Review

There is hardly an utterance of dialogue in Son of Saul so the fact it is a foreign film should matter little. Sure, there are subtitles and one must pay close attention if they are to grasp the full impact of the film at large, but simply taken on the images it projects the film is an unnerving achievement. From the opening, uninterrupted shot that follows the titular prisoner through one of the more horrific experiences one could ever imagine comprehending there is a bleak, but gripping nature to the film. One that, despite any caution the viewer might feel given the circumstances of the film and its Holocaust subject matter, is worth witnessing. What is at first a look inside the horrific daily routine of what were referred to as "Sonderkommando's" quickly becomes a story of one man in particular wrestling with the internal conflict of being forced to commit terrible acts while at the same time dealing with the torment of his own persecution. Saul is the harbinger of his own, inevitable death in many ways and it is through the desperate act that the film chronicles that a type of quest for redemption is attempted so that he may not only atone for the daily injustices to human life that he is going along with, but that he might somehow feel a purpose one last time in this existence the Nazi's have all but forced out of him. Son of Saul is, at the same time, both a simple film in that it once again portrays the appalling nature of how we can treat one another through the events of the Holocaust while naturally being a very complex and layered piece of filmmaking due to those same aforementioned factors. Most thoughts having to do with what people were forced to deal with when it comes to Auschwitz are easier to deal with when pushed to the back of one's mind, but Son of Saul puts these crimes against humanity front and center and forces the audience to feel the immense complications of having to do nothing more than follow the commands of your captors while simultaneously dealing with how those orders make you hate yourself and the world/time you live in.

We are immediately introduced to Hungarian-Jewish prisoner Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig). He, along with several other men in the camp are housed in a separate section given their aforementioned title. We then become privy to the reasons for their distinction as it becomes clear their duties include knowingly corralling the other prisoners into the gas chambers. These are prisoners who believe they are being given a shower and food before they are forced to start working. The opening shot concludes with Saul standing stoically outside a chamber as the screams of those inside begin to get louder. He stands still, his frame unshaken, but it's not hard to see the countless thoughts running through his mind as he hears the lives of his fellow man be vanquished. The film cuts through the sound with a startling silence giving us the title card before just as swiftly cutting back to Saul cleaning the gas chamber after being used. Saul is then forced to go through the personal possessions of the dead and then dispose of the ashes after the bodies are burned. The plot thickens when after one of these gassings Saul sees the body of who he believes is his illegitimate son. While the Germans want to conduct an autopsy on the body, Saul on the other hand goes on a mission to prevent the autopsy from proceeding, and steals the body in hopes of giving it a proper Jewish burial. To accomplish such a mission, Saul will need the assistance of a Rabbi and many of his fellow prisoners who he soon discovers have an agenda of their own: an uprising and rebellion to show the rest of the world what atrocities are being committed against them. Still, this proves to not be the biggest hurdle Saul must overcome as it seems reliable intel puts the Sonderkommando's own usefulness up for question meaning their captors may soon be intending to push them into the gas chambers as well.

Saul (Géza Röhrig) searches out a Rabbi to provide a proper burial for his son.
There is no enjoyment or entertainment value to be gained from Son of Saul as it is indisputably a film centered on the Holocaust that means to take a brutal, unflinching look at the inhumanity of the German army. It is a tough watch and one I really have no desire to experience again, but within that cannot help but to recognize the seeming importance of such a film as well as the expert craft that has gone into constructing it. Maybe most surprising about this effort is that it comes from a first time feature director in László Nemes who also co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer. Despite this lack of substance in either of their résumés their film is filled to the brim with it. There is a very assured, albeit loose, hand to the camera work as we are never taken out of the point of view of our protagonist for a larger look at the world in which he inhabits. Instead, we stay close either on Röhrig's face as he searches for the next step to take or perched on his shoulder as he takes those steps. There is nothing inherently cinematic about the film other than the precise blocking that must have been required for these extended takes, but instead the emotion and dynamic of the film is largely put on the shoulders of Röhrig and his facial expressions. Nemes gets away with not showing much of the awful and downright gruesome ordeals with which Saul and his fellow captors encounter by keeping us zeroed in on Saul's face and his dense surroundings. It is through Röhrig's performance that we get to experience the real horror of what is taking place just beyond our field of vision and it is disturbing both how cold Saul has become to the proceedings and yet to see how much it has affected him by taking us through his relentless quest to give this young boy a proper Jewish burial. While this is the plot for which Saul is given to jump through both Nemes and Röhrig's performance are not intent to deliver an action packed escape sequence in the third act that solidifies Saul's status as a redemptive hero, but rather to give us a glimpse behind a curtain we would have never peaked behind on our own accord.

It's an interesting puzzle to try and piece together in knowing that despite appreciating the film for providing such insight and being daring enough to execute its story in a fashion that becomes more about the slice of life excerpt it displays rather than succumbing to any conventions, that this is still a film I have no desire to re-visit or would even recommend to friends. Is it necessary viewing? Maybe, but in what set of circumstances does one recommend such a film outside of the rare person trying to catch up on all of the Oscar nominated foreign language films? I don't know that you can, but after experiencing Son of Saul for myself and going on this journey with the titular character, no matter how disheartening and horrible it all felt in the moment, is a memory that will never leave me, an (further) eye-opening experience that will always make me appreciate the date of my birth and the advantages of the circumstances I was born into both geographically and spiritually. If nothing else, one might take away the boldness and bravery of the films protagonist, but even then the thoughts will surface later of how Saul was never intended to be a hero, but more just a man looking to put off the inevitable for as long as possible while in the process proving his worth at a second chance for a better life in whatever comes afterward.