Son of Saul, a grim out-of-body experience at Auschwitz — a film review

January 30, 2016

Son of Saul poster artSon of Saul, the feature debut by Hungarian director László Nemes has an audacious premise: placing the viewer in the shoes of a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The film follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) over the course of two days at the Nazi death camp. He is at the end of his tenure as a prisoner tasked with corralling fellow Jews into mass gas chambers and disposing of the evidence as quickly as possible before he and other members of the Sonderkommando guide the next batch of frightened prisoners with promises of “After the shower, you will have some tea.”

The film’s opening shot is a stunning moment of establishing thesis and aesthetic. After the film’s stark opening title card explains the role of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the audience will notice the idyllic chirping of birds. The viewer is confronted with a blurry shot of a lush wooded area in a tight, boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There appears to be two young people (possibly children) crouched by a tree apparently digging in the dirt. A blurry figure approaches the center of the screen until his ragged, pale face with a cracked lip comes into focus, the mystery of everything else around him still blurred out. It is the jittery Saul, remarkably portrayed by non-actor and poet Röhrig.

It’s a crafty shot that reveals the film’s shallow focus and how nothing will appear as clearly as it might seem, as the film stays sharply focused on the man whose face you now clearly see. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, who worked in similar close up but to very different effect in James Son of Saul stillWhite (James White uses meticulous performances and precise camerawork to make damaged person sympathetic and real — a film review), creates an incredibly subjective experience. It’s not so much a first person perspective as it is presenting an out-of-body experience for the film’s main character. Saul goes about his job with meticulous, hasty precision, reassuring the victims, then cleaning out their hung clothes of valuables for the Nazis to collect and catalog before entering the chambers to help drag out the nude, lifeless corpses and stack them up for mass incineration.

Though details are often blurred out in his periphery, that doesn’t make them any less real. It’s a cinematic choice by Nemes to capture the sense that Saul is tuning out his environment to come to grips with his complicity, a role that bides him a little more time to live before he too is executed. Obscuring the atrocities only heightens the horror. It’s a respectful representation of the incomprehensible. Nemes never heightens the film beyond this. There are hardly any noticeable cuts in the flow of the action, which features long takes. There is also no music score. The soundtrack is industrial horror show from the rhythmic puffing of the train the victims ride in on, to the screams and metallic scratching on the walls as they are gassed. Even the plentiful gunshots from the SS troops become almost rhythmically routine in the film’s diegetic din.

SAUL_FIA_SON_OF_SAUL_Still

Beyond the sensory experience of Son of Saul, Nemes’ script, co-written with historian Clara Royer explores a complex dynamic of what happens over the course of the film. Saul latches onto a boy who is pulled from the chamber still breathing but is suffocated to death by a camp doctor. Saul seems to think this boy is his son, and he becomes bent on finding a rabbi among the prisoners to say Kaddish and give the child a proper burial. Meanwhile, a revolt is being planned around him. In another layer of complexity, it helps to understand that among the Sonderkommando, there are Polish and Hungarian Jews who hold an animosity toward each other, revealing the profound sense of divisiveness in humanity. Even under the same belief system there are tribal allegiances, and even as their captors and killers push them around, the internal hate among victims persists, enhancing the film’s Inferno-like quality.

As an effort to capture the horrors of Auschwitz, Son of Saul is incredible in how it harnesses the tools of cinema. From decisions in framing and focus to soundtrack and storytelling, Son of Saul is a remarkable achievement, and the film has indeed been duly recognized. It came out of Cannes last year with the Grand Prix and charged ahead to its current nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film prize at the upcoming Oscars, where most expect it to win. Holocaust films always matter, and Son of Saul is an indisputable effort in not just technical filmmaking but in channeling cinema’s power to capture subjective perspective. However, respect belongs to history. No matter the level of gruesome imagery, Holocaust cinema is mere representation. You will come out shaken but with the knowledge you are alive. Son of Saul is a life experience and a confrontation worth submitting to if only to remind yourself of the horror sentience is capable of inspiring in man, and Nemes should be commended for that.

Hans Morgenstern

Son of Saul runs 107 minutes, is in Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian and Polish with English subtitles and is Rated R.
SCREENING UPDATE: After winning the Oscar (as expected) Son of Saul returns for a run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 1. On March 4 it comes to O Cinema Wynwood.
It opened earlier at the following South Florida theaters on Friday, Jan. 27:
  • Tower Theater
  • Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale
  • Living Room Theaters
  • Carmike Muvico Parisian
  • Movies Delray
  • Movies of Lake Worth

For other theaters in the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics who also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2 Responses to “Son of Saul, a grim out-of-body experience at Auschwitz — a film review”

  1. CineMuse Says:

    Great review Hans. I’ve concluded that this is a modern masterpiece. Drop in for a read.


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