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.


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.)

If there is a moment in history that does not need overwrought drama, sentimentality and heavy-handedness it is the roundup of Jews to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Since the 2010 release of La Rafle (The Roundup) in France, where it was a bona fide box office hit, there have been many reviews of the film. Many have accused director Rose Bosch of sentimentality. But I feel differently about her movie, as she does seem to show restraint. Based on true accounts of this dark bit of history in Nazi-occupied Paris, though unrated by the MPAA, she tempers the film for a PG-13 level of audience. Some will argue this weakens the impact of the story, making it in fact sentimental. OK, so she does not exploit the violence. This does not make this story any less powerful. Besides, the horror of the Holocaust can never be matched sitting in a cozy movie theater for a couple of hours no matter how “unsentimental” you make it.

The music, though sometimes melodramatic, remains subdued. Especially if you compare it to, say, John Williams, who composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There are few grandiose moments in La Rafle and no abuse of slow motion or other such high-pitched, stylized techniques. Though the production value is high, it serves the story, and never feels too showy. The production even includes a digital effect that sweeps through the thousands rounded up in one day contained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, on their first step to the death camps. This is not a fun film to watch, but a testament, if a straight-forward one, with little standout stylistic flourishes, so despite the fact that this film features Mélanie Laurent, who shines in an emotionally charged performance, do not expect Inglorious Basterds.

I’m not saying La Rafle is a perfect film. It actually falls in a sort of middle ground of compromise of violence and sentimentality that will probably be shrugged away by most. But, I, for one, was moved by the film’s little touches of detail. The story is, for the most-part, told from the perspective of Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), a naive 11-year-old boy who is based on a real, still living person, who barely escaped the trains to Auschwitz to tell the story that informs this movie. The film is at its strongest when it stays with his perspective. However, Bosch tries to cram too much exposition around Weismann’s story to the film’s detriment. It is in the intimate moments with Jo where the simple power of the film resonates.

The film begins with too much expository dialogue running the viewer through a historical context that should be familiar to anyone who might be curious about such a movie. There is even a brief cut to Vichy, France, the famous seat of the collaborators that paved Hitler’s entrance into France. There are also cutaways to Hitler himself (Udo Schenk) who has such obvious lines as “Everything is happening as I wrote in Mein Kampf.” He also tells Himmler (Thomas Darchinger) of making “ashes” of the Jews so no one can tell the children from the adults. There is one brief moment showing a German officer calling from Auschwitz, with flames raging behind him, asking for the deliveries to slow down. In more deft hands, say Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, that moment could have resonated, but it’s muted and oddly matter-of-fact, as Bosch tries to over-reach for comprehension in the drama.

The truth of the horrors of this period in history do not need such painstaking, all-encompassing re-enactment. It’s the small, intimate moments that ultimately hold the film together, like the little Jewish boy Nono (played by identical twin brothers Mathieu Di Concerto and Romain Di Concerto) who tag along with the masses. Through it all he continues to ask when his mother will arrive to join he and his brother, not knowing that she has already died. He clings to a Red Cross nurse named Annette Monod (Laurent) who knows the truth but tries to keep his spirit afloat as her own spirals downward. There are also more personal details like the disposal of jewelry in the latrines just before the detainees are hauled away to their final camp and the arrival of firemen at the Velodrome d’Hiver offering their hoses to the thirsty masses. Those contained at the stadium also do not pass up a chance to hand over notes to the firemen addressed to those on the outside. These are the sort of details a child might remember from a life experience. The historical context was something far beyond and would have naturally come out in the film in more subtle ways.

It is a difficult line to walk for a director who wants to tell a side of the Holocaust that has not really ever been given such a grandiose, big budget treatment. This was a true human tragedy in France. Anyone unmoved by film’s end, during the reunion of those who should have died, is not allowing themselves a chance to understand the horror that Bosch is trying to communicate. She does it best during the small details, like the unrelenting drive of a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) to help his people stay alive in the unsanitary conditions they were relegated to. Or the small but powerful lines by the victims as they are rounded up. One woman screams, “I won’t leave. This is my house!” as she clings to her home’s door frame while a French policeman yanks on her. When the neighborhood baker’s wife yells out “Good bye, Jewish vermin” as those gathered up are placed on trucks, a little girl yells back, “I’m not vermin!” These moments resonate with immense tragedy, proving there is no need for melodrama or over-explanation. It is these observant touches of humanity that pay off in the end.

Hans Morgenstern

La Rafle opens Friday, Feb. 17, in select theaters nationwide, in the US. In South Florida it will play the Intracoastal Mall Cinema in North Miami, Sunrise Eleven in West Broward, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood, Regal Delray and Cobb Jupiter 18. The following Friday, Feb. 24, it will start its run at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film is unrated and runs 124 minutes. Up-date: If you missed it at any of the prior venues, it arrives for a limited run at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema as part of Miami Film Month on Friday, Mar. 16. Get tickets to those dates here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)