UK Release Date: 29th April 2016
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: László Nemes
Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Uwe Lauer, Sándor Zsótér
Synopsis: A Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz becomes embroiled in an uprising against his Nazi captors whilst trying to secure a proper burial for a young boy he finds among the many corpses at the camp.
In amongst the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards back in February, one film seemed to stick out. Hungarian drama Son of Saul picked up the Best Foreign Film prize and there were very few people who had ever argued that any of the other competitors should have beat it. Son of Saul has, in fact, been surrounded by buzz ever since at premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prix in the process. It has finally arrived on British shores and it’s a remarkable piece of work with real power.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, essentially winning himself a stay of execution by helping the Nazis to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers. One day, he discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes to be his son. With the help of the prison doctor (Sándor Zsótér), Saul obtains the body and attempts to make the necessary arrangements for a proper Jewish burial. Meanwhile, his fellow Sonderkommando members Oberkapo Biedermann (Urs Rechn) and Abraham (Levente Molnár) begin to hatch a plan to fight back against their Nazi captors.
Son of Saul is an immensely powerful movie and a genuinely unique take on the well-trodden tale of the Holocaust. Nemes makes the brave choice to focus entirely on the claustrophobia of Saul’s predicament rather than the wider atrocities of the Nazis. The camera is positioned either behind the eyes of the central character or mere feet from the face of lead actor Géza Röhrig, placing the audience right at the heart of his turbulent world. The oppressive claustrophobia is only amplified by the decision to display the film in the tight Academy ratio, forcing the audience to focus entirely on Röhrig as the action unfolds.
With so much responsibility on his shoulders due to the decisions of the film’s director, it’s remarkable how good a job Röhrig does in Son of Saul. He hasn’t acted since a few television roles in the 1980s, but is completely believable here as a desperate man with a certain emotional numbness in the face of his utterly inhuman surroundings. Murder, indignity and horror happens out of focus in the background, with Röhrig’s impassive reactions showcasing a man who has seen things no man should have to see.
One of the biggest achievements of Son of Saul is how controlled it is in its depiction of violence. Nemes doesn’t shy away from what is happening, but he is more interested in the effect it all has on his central character. Even the prospect of a Jewish uprising, which would be the central plot of any other film, is relegated to a background detail in Saul’s crusade to secure a proper burial for the young boy who may or may not have once been his son. Unfortunately, it’s in this that the movie finds its major weakness. In presenting a sort of detachment from the events, Son of Saul becomes a tough film to access emotionally, lacking the potent human impact of a movie like Schindler’s List.
Son of Saul, though, is a movie that is thoroughly dominated by the one-two punch of its tremendous central performance and a director who has the courage to present a genuinely unique perspective on a well-trodden path. All eyes will be on what Nemes does next.
Pop or Poop?
Son of Saul deserves all of the credit in the world for its commitment in finding a new way to depict the worst atrocity in human history. The solution, as mainstream cinema often fails to realise, is in going smaller and zeroing in not just on the life of one particular character, but on their immediate surroundings at any one time.
The violence is unflinching, but it often occurs off screen or out of focus, creating a potent take on the events of the Holocaust. The emotion of the central plotline struggles to land entirely, but this is intelligent filmmaking from a director who is definitely one to watch.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.