Cinematic Releases: Son of Saul

Andrew reviews the harrowing and astonishing Son of Saul.

You stole my lunch. Prepare to die. 
To think in this day and age a WWII Holocaust film as harrowing as Russian director Elem Klimov's first person point-of-view experiential Come and See is a truly horrific prospect.  Yet now here is the Hungarian drama Son of Saul, a film which drops you the viewer right into the chamber of unfathomable horrors drenched in death.  Like Come and See, it represents the astonishing cinematic debut of a first time director and strips the story bare of political content to allow for the experience of a fragile and frightened human at it's epicenter.  This isn't a film so much about what happened in Auchwitz as it is about what it felt like to live that ordeal and through it's ornate visual style and intricate sound design places you the viewer in the shoes of a simple man trapped in Hell.  It's also among the first movies to address the Sonderkommando, work units made up of concentration camp prisoners assigned to clean the gas chambers of blood, feces and dead bodies.  In the face of so much atrocious indignity is a startlingly beautiful and moving story of one member of the Sonderkommando, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), who watches a boy miraculously survive death in a gas chamber only to die moments later and becomes determined against all odds to give the boy a proper burial.  It's also, like Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, a film which deals with failed uprising against the Nazis by the prisoners, all the while never diverting Saul from his singular goal.

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The product of years of intensive research on the Sonderkommando live and death, the first thing viewers will notice in Son of Saul is the visual style.  Shot in 35mm film on a 40mm lens in 1.33:1 fullscreen (an artistic choice also utilized in Come and See), the film is largely in soft focus save for macro close ups of the actors when they come within range of the camera, giving the picture an intimacy as well as a vastness.  For much of the film, like Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, the camera follows Saul by filming him largely from the back of his head and shoulders with faintly visible images of bodies piled up into ovens and ashes being shoveled into the lake.  By having Saul be largely silent for the picture with close ups of his stoic and hardened face, we're allowed as viewers to walk in his footsteps and as such are left alone in our interpretation of the experience. 

Equally powerful is the film's intensely detailed sound design, which reportedly took five months to create.  As Saul walks through the concentration camp, sounds of furnaces burning bodies, disembodied screams of victims in gas chambers and indistinct chatter of multiple nationalities adorn the soundscape, again giving viewers the Saul's ears.  Never once does the film leave his side so we see and hear everything he does, bringing you the viewer closer to the horrors of Auchwitz than ever before.  The film, of course, wouldn't work without the strength of it's central performance by Géza Röhrig.  Beginning as a stoic figure, watching his emotions and love gradually return to his face after nearly all of his humanity has otherwise been beaten out of him is a startlingly beautiful sight, one which moved me to tears the first time I saw the film.

Stop pointing that thing at me. 
As such, this is one of the most immersive and profoundly moving films I've seen all year.  I was lucky enough to see it on a 35mm film print in Chicago's prestigious Music Box Theater, but more on that later.  While Son of Saul is obviously awash in great horror, there's also a tinge of hope and a beauty to the film's testament to mankind's dignity shining through despite being buried almost completely in death.  This is a film everyone should see, whether it be for the historical focus on the Sonderkommando or a simple notion of love in it's own quiet manner triumphing over evil. 

This very easily could have been an exploitation film like Uwe Boll's Auchwitz but by keeping the atrocities in soft focus and tying viewers directly to Saul the entire time, it becomes something of a nonjudgmental character study of one man fighting with all his might to do one act of good in world being drowned by so much evil.  From beginning to end you are right there with Saul and thus become caught up in his determination to provide a tragic death with a dignified entry into the next world.  For as thick as the mire gets in Son of Saul, the central hero's selflessness has the capacity to genuinely warm your heart without being sentimental or forced.  I've no problem calling Son of Saul one of the best films I have ever seen!

 - Andrew Kotwicki