- on Friday, 18 December 2015 15:50
- by Frank Wilkins
For those of you still grousing about getting shut out of this weekend’s Star Wars ticket buying mania, might we suggest some alternative programming to counter the raucous space opera madness currently taking over theaters. Not only is the Hungarian language Son of Saul a much better film than anything you’ll see this weekend, it is one of the year’s best, having been showered with industry accolades from around the globe including the prestigious Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination.
Son of Saul tells the story of Saul Ausländer (Géza Róhrig), a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners who were temporarily spared their lives while at Auschwitz-Birkenau in exchange for running the Nazi crematoriums and concentration camps during World War II. Able to move through the camps with relative freedom and autonomy, the prisoners were responsible for escorting new transports of Jews to the gas chamber buildings, seeing that they were undressed in an orderly fashion, and then briskly herding them into the gas chambers with promises of warm soup and hot tea after their “showers.”
The film takes place entirely in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp over the course of two days as the Nazi killing machine ramps up to full scale sometime around 1944.
First-time Director László Nemes shoots the action in a singular point-of-view, with the camera immediately over Saul’s shoulder. Like a first-person video game, we see only what Saul sees as the side of his head is never out of the camera’s frame during the film’s entire runtime. Nemes shoots his extended takes with a shallow focus, giving us only an occasional, blurry glimpse of the immediate surroundings which hint at a living hell taking place just outside the camera’s frame.
Our aural senses are equally assaulted as screams and shouts in many languages fill the hellish factory with the sounds of the unspeakable inhumanity taking place. Nemes gives us just enough visual and auditory information, along with what we already know about the Auschwitz atrocities, to fill in the blanks with our own imagination. The result: a hauntingly brilliant, yet chilling story about hope, morality, and the unshakable will to survive in a world filled with deathly certainties.
As Saul begins to clean up after the most recent prisoner arrival, he notices a gasping young boy that somehow survived the gas attack. Saul momentarily ceases his methodical picking over of the prisoners’s belongings for trinkets to be used for future barter and bribery to tend to the doomed boy. For the remainder of the story, Saul risks his own life to save the child’s body from the furnace flames He spends his remaining hours searching for a rabbi to recite the Kaddish, and give the boy a proper burial.
We ask ourselves over and over in frustration about Saul’s relentless desire to carry out such a seemingly vain and useless deed at the risk of his own life. Even fellow Sonderkommando prisoners are puzzled by his relentless drive. But as the situation around him deteriorates and his fate becomes more and more dire – even the Sonderkommando are tagged for eventual extermination – we understand that Saul just is simply trying to hold on to his dignity in the face of atrocious barbarism.
Of course, were newcomer Róhrig unable to bring his Ausländer to life, none of this would work despite Nemes’s innovative camera-work and superb storytelling from a script he co-writes with Clara Royer. 107 minutes of never being outside the camera’s frame is enough to bring even a Hollywood A-lister to his knees. But Róhrig never falters with his facial expressions and physical mannerisms that speak volumes.
Son of Saul isn’t a movie about the Holocaust. Nor does it use the event’s unspeakable atrocities to exploit its viewers’ emotions. In fact, we never really see outright the face of the horror going on around us. Rather, it’s a simple story, simply told of one man caught in a hopelessly desperate situation. Yet its moral is something worthy of all mankind’s attention.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity..
Runtime: 107 mins
Director: László Nemes
Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Genre: Drama | War
Tagline: Son of Saul
Memorable Movie Quote: "He's my son"
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Release Date: December 18, 2015 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: October 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Auslander is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large-scale extermination. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the child's body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner's Kaddish, and offer the boy a proper burial.
No details available.