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