Son of Saul

SON OF SAUL, drama, rated R; in Ger­man, Rus­sian, Pol­ish, Yid­dish, and Hun­gar­ian with sub­ti­tles, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

If hell ex­ists, it could well turn out to be some­thing along the lines of the death camp recre­ated in Lás­zló Nemes’ sear­ing Holo­caust drama. Nemes tack­les this fa­mil­iar and al­ways hor­ri­fy­ing sub­ject mat­ter from an un­fa­mil­iar an­gle. Through vir­tu­ally the en­tire film he keeps his cam­era close on the face, or the back of the head, of his pro­tag­o­nist Saul (Géza Röhrig). The ac­tion is not seen through Saul’s eyes, but from his per­spec­tive. The ef­fect is both claus­tro­pho­bic and dis­tanc­ing.

Saul is a Hun­gar­ian Jewish pris­oner at AuschwitzBirke­nau, among the most no­to­ri­ous of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps to which Jews were sent for ex­ter­mi­na­tion in Hitler’s Fi­nal So­lu­tion. He is a mem­ber of the Son­derkom­mando, which the film’s open­ing ti­tle ex­plains are crews made up of Jewish pris­on­ers as­signed to three-month tours of duty to dis­pose of the bod­ies of gas cham­ber vic­tims and ready the venue for the next batch. The as­sign­ment buys them three more months of life, or liv­ing death, af­ter which they will join the vic­tims.

With the cam­era tight on Saul’s head, most of what is go­ing on around him tran­spires in blurred fo­cus in the back­ground. In an open­ing scene, a new train­load of Jewish pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing men, women, and chil­dren, is herded into a stark grey an­te­room, and told to strip and hang their clothes on the num­bered pegs that line the walls. The re­as­sur­ing Ger­man guard tells them that they are to have a hot shower, af­ter which they will re­claim their clothes and be given work as­sign­ments. “Don’t for­get your peg num­ber,” he in­structs the pris­on­ers.

Clean­ing up af­ter that open­ing shower scene, search­ing the cloth­ing for valu­ables, and stack­ing the bod­ies for in­cin­er­a­tion, Saul comes upon a boy who is still breath­ing. The respite doesn’t last long, but Saul fix­ates on the boy, whom he be­lieves to be his son, and he hides the body. Much of the rest of the film cen­ters on Saul’s fix­a­tion to find a rabbi to say Kad­dish over the corpse, and to give the child a proper Jewish burial.

Aside from Saul, there is only a hand­ful of iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ters in the story — a doc­tor who is also a pris­oner, and a few of Saul’s fel­low in­mates, around whom a sec­ondary strand of a planned es­cape can be dimly seen to be de­vel­op­ing. When the cam­era pulls back at all, it is gen­er­ally to bring th­ese men into view and to give rough shape to the plot they are hatching.

But most of the time we are tightly fo­cused on the gaunt face of Saul, fol­low­ing him closely as he nav­i­gates the rapids of hor­ror that swirl around him, with his bruised, hol­low eyes locked on his goal. This has the ef­fect of putting us into the in­su­lated state to which he tries to con­fine him­self, a dead man walk­ing among the dead, see­ing only what is di­rectly in front of him and try­ing, with­out suc­cess, to blank out the wider pic­ture and all its hor­rors.

Nemes and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Má­tyás Erdély have shot on 35mm film in what is called Academy ra­tio, a con­fined, boxy im­age that fur­ther em­pha­sizes the tun­nel vi­sion of Saul’s per­spec­tive and his dulled sur­vival mech­a­nism. At the same time Nemes floods his sound­track with shouted or­ders and abuse from guards, cries, groans, gun­fire, and other evoca­tive sounds that paint a men­tal pic­ture of what can­not be seen.

It is im­pos­si­ble to take your eyes off Röhrig, both lit­er­ally — there is nowhere else to look — and be­cause of the ashen in­ten­sity he brings to the role. He is not par­tic­u­larly heroic. There is a sug­ges­tion of self- delu­sion in Saul’s per­sis­tence, and a charge of en­dan­ger­ing the prospects of the planned break­out. “You have failed the liv­ing for the dead,” a leader of the es­cape plot says ac­cus­ingly. A dis­tant par­al­lel could be drawn to Alec Guin­ness’ ob­ses­sive Col. Ni­chol­son in The Bridge on the River Kwai, in the sense of an idée fixe that jeop­ar­dizes the plans, and the lives, of his com­pan­ions.

This is the first fea­ture from Nemes, who served his ap­pren­tice­ship for two years as an as­sis­tant to the great Hun­gar­ian di­rec­tor Béla Tarr ( Wer­ck­meis­ter

Har­monies). He has made a film that is painful to con­sider, ex­cru­ci­at­ing to watch, and hard to turn away from. But bleak and pun­ish­ing as the film is, it leaves us at the end with a thin, pale beam of some­thing akin to hope. Son of Saul won the Jury Grand Prix in com­pe­ti­tion at Cannes as well as a Golden Globe, and is an odds­mak­ers’ fa­vorite to be­come the first Hun­gar­ian film to take the Best For­eign Film Os­car.

— Jonathan Richards

Dead man walk­ing: Géza Röhrig

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