Directed by László Nemes Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár & Urs Rechn Film Review by Chris Olson
Award-winning Hungarian war drama, Son of Saul (originally titled Saul fia), is a technically daring and cleverly obscure piece of filmmaking that triumphs in its method but limits its own narrative freedom. The film tells the story of Auschwitz prison inmate Saul (Géza Röhrig), who is a member of the Sonderkommando; a band of inmates who scuttle around the infamous concentration camp wearing garish red crosses stamped on the back of their clothing, signifying their roles as the unfortunate clean-up crew, responsible for scrubbing down the gas chambers, piling up the bodies (or "pieces") and submissively doing anything the guards order them to do. After one horrific chamber scene, Saul finds the body of a young boy still breathing, who is then quickly suffocated by a doctor. This moment is the catalyst for the story, as the boy may well be Saul's offspring, who now strives to get his son a proper burial, much to his own personal risk. Told using a myriad of long takes, close-ups and shaky tracking sequences, every single inch of Nemes' screen is brutally intense, rendering the viewer a fellow victim of this devastating place. Certain sequences are eloquently beautiful, as the camera traverses huge distances in a harrowing journey through this hellish location. Piggybacking Saul, the audience catches glimpses of the horror without ever being allowed to linger, in fact many of the threat elements happen off-screen or are obscured by Saul himself. The frustration this causes the viewer is intentional, given that the method is maintained until the end, but sadly limits the film's narrative from ever breaching the boundaries of shocked bystander. A foothold is never gained into the implied gut-wrenching nature of the events taking place, that even Saul is a character difficult to wrestle with emotionally, his stoicism reflecting the dehumanisation he has endured.
From the outset, though, Nemes never tries to achieve too much. He pushes Saul through the labyrinthine chaos that is Aushchwitz with a frantic abandon which is compelling if not ultimately engaging, a smorgasbord of despairing characters his only company whose battle for survival is as tragic as our protagonist's. These are also not explored with much fervour, every character is a dispensable addition to the mise en scène adding to the nightmarish horror of the atmosphere created. No attempts at explaining the situation, or trying to find some semblance of reasoning, are made, much to the credit of the director, who tells the story without resorting to sentimentalism. It seems a shame that the only perspective we are offered is so overwrought with numbness that an attachment is never allowed to be made and audiences will leave the film feeling little more enriched by the experience. The horrors of the concentration camps have been well documented and the sheer scale of the damage well recorded, what's needed from filmmakers and storytellers is to inject the humanity, something which Nemes sadly refrains from.
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