son_of_saul_2Year: 2015
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Writer(s): Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
Region of Origin: Hungary
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 107 mins

Synopsis: In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. (Source)

Movies help us come to terms with the world around us, and Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul is the best example of this. Though countless films have been made about the Holocaust, Nemes’ interpretation is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. We already know the tragedy of the event and the unspeakable acts of evil that occurred, but here, Nemes’ uses it as a backdrop to subvert the idea of hope, focusing not on one man’s struggle to survive, but to find redemption within his grim situation. It’s an unrelentingly raw and unforgiving experience that doesn’t try to create false sympathy through archetypal villains or heroes, but instead immerses us into a nightmare that explores the lives which were so savagely extinguished. Melding a heart-stopping mixture of craft and emotional authenticity, Son of Saul is a cinematic achievement of the highest order.

Saul is a Sonderkommando, a Jew forced to work in an Auschwitz death camp who aids to dispose of his own people. Arguably numb to the horrors around him, he’s proficient at his job and does what he’s told, but any life in him left a long time ago. Then one day, Saul finds the body of a young boy, a Hungarian like him, who he takes an interest in. He pleads for permission to give the boy a proper burial, and a Nazi doctor takes pity on him, helping him smuggle the body for burial. With Saul’s Sonderkommando unit expected to be terminated any day now, he ignores any of his companions’ attempt at rebellion to find a Rabbi for the boy’s burial. Over the course of a few days, Saul works towards his goal at any cost.

The most stunning part about Nemes’ film is how immersive it is. Told solely through extended long takes and a tight Academy aspect ratio, the film evokes an almost first person perspective, with the camera hovering over Saul’s shoulders as he’s relentlessly shuffled from one chaotic scene to the next. There’s a constant unease that comes with this kind of delivery, even as the carnage of each scene spills into the periphery of our view but never fully comes into focus. As Saul is forced to drag naked dead bodies like slabs of meat, loot jewelry from clothes left behind, and is verbally berated and physical assaulted by his captors, we feel rather than see the horrors that he’s going through without oversimplification or gratuitous exploitation. The miracle of it all, besides the escalating technical craftsmanship, is that Nemes’ presentation is never empty showmanship, but instead an honest depiction of intimate tragedy amidst a larger and more futile struggle.

son_of_saul_3All of Nemes’ craft would be meaningless however, if it weren’t for the searing performance of star Geza Rohrig as the titular Saul. As he is both our focal point and audience surrogate, he allows us to project our horror on to his experience, while also allowing us to be on the journey alongside him. Much of the film’s most harrowing moments come from the camera trained squarely on his face, as he emotes the horror of a given scene or predicament – it’s thanks to him that the film feels as real as it does. Even more impressive, is that he’s able to convey so much despite limited dialogue. It’s truly a transfixing performance that’s as unforgettable as it is heartbreaking.

The biggest testament to Nemes’ film is that it suffocates you while you’re experiencing it, but gets even deeper under your skin with time. You truly don’t understand the full weight of it until it hits you much later, and even then, its revelatory nature is one that resonates with comprehensive ferocity. Needless to say, this isn’t a movie that concludes with a neat bow or easy answers, but one that makes us us rethink everything we thought we knew about our primal instincts. At its most fundamental level, Son of Saul is one of the best films about humanity ever made, examining the evil that we’re capable of, but also the faith that drives our lives no matter how grim our situation may be.