Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Saul Ausländer (Röhrig) works as a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz during 1944, having to lead fellow Jewish prisoners to the deaths and then clear away their corpses. After discovering the body of a boy that he takes as his son, over the next two days Saul risks the lives of himself and others to take the body of this boy and track down a Rabi in order to give the boy a proper burial.
Sometimes it is almost impossible to find the appropriate words or put together sentences that accurately justify a film, usually because it is they are so bland and average that it is hard to muster the effort to describe them. However, in the case of Son of Saul, the combination of it being such a unique, unforgettable and superbly made film, combined with its perfectly judged depiction of its subject matter, it is impossible to find superlatives that fully do this exceptional film justice.
Director and co-writer László Nemes ignores many screenwriting conventions and uses unique aesthetics that in the wrong hands could easily feel forced and gimmicky, but he skilfully uses them in a way that only enhances the viewer’s empathy with the main character. Son of Saul is frequently very uncomfortable, challenging and difficult viewing, and this is not only because of the actual plot itself and its setting, but also how the story is told; plot-wise we are thrown from one scene to another with little knowledge of what is happening. This does make it a challenge for the viewer to truly know what is happening at times as there is very little exposition, but it actually enhances our empathy with the character as we get to know the character and the motivations behind what initially seem like irrational and irresponsible actions as the narrative develops.
Likewise the film’s aesthetics only serve to enhance its narrative; the constant tight close ups on the main character, scenes being in single takes (and therefore playing out in real time) and the narrow frame ratio means that all we have to go on to know what is going on around our protagonist are the sounds. In horror films we are of course more scared of what we can’t see than what we can, and Nemes uses this notion perfectly in Son of Saul. Though of course most of us can only begin to understand or imagine the real experiences of people like the film’s characters, Nemes skilfully uses the visual tools that the medium of film can offer to give us a visual experience that is chaotic, confusing, horrifying and deeply haunting.
For almost the entire narrative the camera focusses tightly on the face of Saul, and Géza Röhrig is exceptional as him. He has very little actual dialogue, but his desperation, confusion and anguish is clear in his face as he risks his own life on several occasions to find a small piece of personal redemption. As the narrative develops it is impossible not to care for Saul and want him to succeed, and as he tries to achieve what should be such a simple goal but yet it involves him risking not only his own life, but of those around him, it makes for a narrative that grips to the very end.
For me Son of Saul is one of those films that cannot be fully appreciated while watching, but once watched and analysed in one’s mind as a whole. It is then that so many moments from the film linger long in the mind, and that for me that is the hallmark of a great film. Despite its setting, it is a film that never attempts to lecture the viewer with a patronising history lesson or is harrowing for the sake of it. Son of Saul is first and foremost an unforgettable and very personal human drama, but one that also depicts the setting of this drama with an appropriate level of respect, but also in a way that enhances the drama and the haunting nature of the film. The 2016 Oscar winner for best foreign language film is not an easy watch, and nor should it be, but it is essential viewing for all film fans.
Not only a film that is an unforgettable and gripping piece of human drama, but also one that depicts its unique and horrific setting in the appropriate way; Son of Saul is often a very difficult viewing experience, but a viewing experience that all should partake in.