Even though it is a true lesson in technique and direction, Son of Saul deserved to have a more interesting protagonist with better motivations

Son of Saul

Son of Saul (Saul Fia) (2015)

Di­rect­ed by Lás­zló Nemes. Writ­ten by Lás­zló Nemes and Clara Roy­er. Star­ring Géza Röhrig, Lev­ente Mol­nár, Urs Rechn and Sán­dor Zsótér.

In ex­ter­mi­na­tion camps dur­ing the Holo­caust, the Son­derkom­man­dos (a Ger­man word that means “spe­cial unit”) were spe­cial groups of pris­on­ers (usu­al­ly Jews) who were forced to help the Ger­man Nazis with the dis­pos­al of gas cham­ber vic­tims. Be­cause they knew up close what hap­pened to the in­mates who were brought to those cham­bers (be­ing there­fore con­sid­ered “bear­ers of se­crets,” or Geheimnisträger), they were sep­a­rat­ed from the rest of the camp and worked no longer than a few months be­fore be­ing gassed (and re­placed with new ar­rivals) so that their knowl­edge about the mass mur­der process didn’t reach the out­side world.

It is with­in this hor­rif­ic con­text that Lás­zló NemesSon of Saul fol­lows Son­derkom­man­do Saul Aus­län­der (Géza Röhrig), a Hun­gar­i­an pris­on­er in 1944 Auschwitz who seems be­fud­dled by what takes place around him and de­cides to find a rab­bi to bury the body of a dead boy whom he takes for his son. With this premise in mind, it is not hard to un­der­stand why this film be­came an in­stant fa­vorite among crit­ics and fes­ti­vals, and even took home an Os­car for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film (for Hun­gary). It deals with a dark sub­ject mat­ter seen as his­tor­i­cal­ly im­por­tant and has the type of dra­mat­ic pow­er that should guar­an­tee awards and prais­es — al­though that doesn’t mean the film is spe­cial or su­pe­ri­or as a char­ac­ter study either.

Holo­caust films nor­mal­ly em­ploy tech­niques that ex­plore the lo­ca­tions with­out mak­ing any con­ces­sions about the hor­rors their char­ac­ters wit­ness. That in­cludes us­ing a large depth of fo­cus and a widescreen as­pect ra­tio (think of Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pi­anist (2002), for in­stance). Son of Saul, how­ev­er, em­ploys a very nar­row as­pect ra­tio of 1.375:1 that squeezes the ac­tion and mise-en-scène in­side a claus­tro­pho­bic small frame, and an ex­treme­ly shal­low fo­cus that blurs every­thing sur­round­ing the char­ac­ter. Nemes also in­creas­es the ten­sion even more by keep­ing us on Saul’s shoul­ders as he moves around that hideous place (al­most like a first-per­son movie), cre­at­ing sev­er­al long takes with a hand­held camera.

More in­ter­est­ing, Tamás Zányi’s su­perb sound de­sign cre­ates a hell­ish ca­coph­o­ny of whis­pers and hu­man voic­es in eight lan­guages that were record­ed and at­tached to the film’s orig­i­nal record­ing, am­pli­fy­ing what we hear as a coun­ter­point to the nar­rowed im­agery that we see. It be­comes clear that Nemes’ pur­pose is to cre­ate a pow­er­ful, im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence by forc­ing us to share Saul’s night­mar­ish au­di­to­ry as­sault and lack of vi­sion (also psy­cho­log­i­cal) in an op­pres­sive at­mos­phere of ter­ror — made even dark­er by Lás­zló Rajk’s pro­duc­tion de­sign with its dirty bar­racks and dark col­ors, as well as Má­tyás Erdély’s drained, yel­low­ish cin­e­matog­ra­phy that uses a 40 mm lens to em­pha­size the space around the character.

But, where­as Son of Saul is in­deed a true les­son in tech­nique and di­rec­tion, it makes it real hard for us to feel any sym­pa­thy or em­pa­thy for a man who risks the lives of every­one around him for a dead body — the body of an un­known boy who may or may not be his son. Why he would in­sist on a lie I can­not tell. So, when an­oth­er in­mate says to him at a cer­tain mo­ment that he is play­ing with their lives, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble not to agree — and I per­son­al­ly felt the strong urge to punch Saul in the face at least twice, which I would prob­a­bly do if I count­ed on his help. Be­sides, the way the film presents some de­tails of the “treat­ment” pro­ce­dure (a eu­phemism for ex­ter­mi­na­tion) seems to only serve the pur­pose of shock­ing us.

On the oth­er hand, Son of Saul does ex­pose the de­hu­man­iza­tion of the Jews in those death camps in a com­pelling way, show­ing how they were treat­ed as only num­bers (in­stead of names) and dis­card­ed as “pieces” (stücke) af­ter gassed — their valu­ables, such as gold, sal­vaged from their be­long­ings. At the same time, it is cu­ri­ous to see how they had some sort of clan­des­tine net­work, like when a pris­on­er men­tions his “guy at the of­fice.” With the kind of es­ca­lat­ing hor­ror that in­ten­si­fies in its last forty min­utes, Son of Saul proves to be ide­al Os­car bait. I only wish, though, it had a more in­ter­est­ing pro­tag­o­nist with bet­ter motivations.


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