It’d be easy to fall victim to uninformed cynicism about yet another Holocaust-themed film that won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, plus the Grand Prix at Cannes when it premiered there last year. Yet Son of Saul is far more than the subtitled downer in Hungarian and German you’re already dismissing. It’s a cinematic experience that transcends anything you’ve seen before on the topic, and rightly called a horror film. What Hungarian writer/director László Nemes has crafted is indeed a fictional narrative set within the most tragic episode of our history, but the specificity of the story and the incredibly executed stylistic choices make for a unique piece of filmmaking and a mesmerising genre film.
Saul (Géza Röhrig), the title character, is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz and a member of the Sonderkommando, who spends his remaining days working on the disposal of the dead. The film opens with the next ‘batch’ led like cattle to be gassed and once it’s all over, the Sonderkommando burns the bodies – or ‘pieces’ as they’re bleakly referred to – and disposes of the ashes in the river.
When a young boy somehow survives the gas chamber, he is suffocated to death and sent back to the doctors to be opened and examined. Saul, who claims the boy to be his son, embarks on a personal mission to steal the body and hide it, planning to give it a proper burial and prevent it from being desecrated. But that’s not all, since the man wants to follow the Jewish tradition and embarks on an even more dangerous journey to find a Rabbi that can recite the Kaddish prayer at the burial. Saul’s mission is an obstinate act of indignation to affirm what’s left of him as a person. He won’t die as a number or a piece of meat. Whether or not the boy is his son is irrelevant – if anything, the possibility it’s not his own child is an even more powerful statement.
László Nemes uses a 40mm lens and an aspect ratio of 1.375:1 to create a shallow focus and a portrait-like narrow field of vision. If you saw Xavier Dolan’s Mommy you might have an idea of how things look – though Dolan went for a more square, Instagram-like effect, the stylistic objectives are similar. This results in an intense, claustrophobic, sensorial experience and the filmmakers did an amazing job with the soundscape, compensating for the lack of depth and width in the image, which doesn’t allow us to see much of what’s going on around Saul. The effect is entrancing as we literally feel like we are inside this nightmare with him as the horrific noises of unseen atrocities and the terrifying yelling of the Nazi officers creep up under our skin all the way to the cathartic finale. This is not an easy film to watch but it is essential viewing, especially in light of current events, to reflect on one of our darkest times as a species and remind ourselves that we are able to bring the light back.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia