Son of Saul packs plenty of filmmaking punch
AFI FEST: Son of Saul
Review by Daniel Rester
Son of Saul is a harrowing, pulse-pounding film that details a certain group of individuals during the Holocaust. The film takes place in Auschwitz during 1944 and those individuals are the Sonderkommandos. Essentially they are prisoners (mostly Jews) forced to help dispose of gas chamber victims, mostly done by burning the bodies.
One of the prisoners is a Hungarian-Jewish man named Saul (Géza Röhrig). He finds the body of a boy he believes is his son, which sends him on a journey to hide the body while he also attempts to find a rabbi so that he can give the boy a secret burial. Meanwhile some of the other members of the Sonderkommando plan to rise up after they learn they will soon be exterminated.
There have been many films made about the Holocaust over the years with myriad different angles told of the subject. Son of Saul ranks among the best of them, up there with titles such as Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002). What makes it even more remarkable is that the film comes from a man — László Nemes — making his feature debut.
From the first frame onward, Nemes’ film sinks its teeth in with its sense of immediacy and realism. The first way it does this is through the writing. The script – written by Nemes and Clara Royer – gives the audience just enough information in order to follow Saul and root for him. There is no big backstory to the character, though we learn a little about him as he speaks to others. Saul is instead a man on a mission, emotion in the eyes and barely any words coming from his mouth; Röhrig does a perfect job at saying so much by saying so little.
The dialogue that is in the film never feels inauthentic, though, and the choice to tell a story about the Sonderkommandos is a unique one. Nemes and Royer do an exceptional job of exploring different reactions characters might have in such a situation. I wish the screenplay might have explored some of the supporting characters a little more, but that is hardly a complaint and I understand why Nemes and Royer might not have wanted to. Their script remains tight and impactful throughout.
Son of Saul is brilliantly staged by Nemes and incredibly shot by cinematographer Matyas Erdely – on 35 mm film with a boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There are hardly any wide shots in the entire film, with Nemes and Erdely instead going with gritty close-ups and mediums in tracking form most of the time; many of these are over-the-shoulder choices as we move along with Saul through the camp. This choice is a daring one, but it pays off terrifically. The movement of the many actors, exceptional placement of sound effects (but no music, a smart choice), use of shots with little to no depth of field of horrors in the background, and more all give Son of Saul an organic this-is-how-it-was feel.
There is a small amount of hopefulness in Saul’s journey to bury his son, but Nemes keeps it on a personal level with the character. He never gives the material a Spielberg-like touch of sentiment or lightness to the entire situation. That’s not to say Schindler’s List and other Spielberg films haven’t had their share of many hard-hitting moments, but Son of Saul leaves out the possibility of a bright future for the characters. Instead every frame sweats with uncertainty and claustrophobia as the audience is placed in a you-are-there mindset.
One of my friends was uncertain about seeing Son of Saul, as he described it as possibly being “another depressing Holocaust movie.” I wouldn’t say Son of Saul is entirely just that. Yes, the Holocaust is a depressing subject, so the film naturally carries some of that emotion. But Nemes is more interested in shaking us with haunting images and telling the story from a unique perspective than wallowing in sad moments set to heavy music. Son of Saul instead feels like a convincing docudrama with the energy of a Paul Greengrass film, never slowing down or escaping from the chaos it details. Nemes is a real talent to watch and Son of Saul is one of the best films of the year.
My Grade: A (on an F to A+ scale).
Viewing Recommendation: Skip It, Wait for Cable, Wait for Blu-ray Rental/VOD, See It at Matinee Price, Worth Full-Price Theater Ticket
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity).