If anyone came up to you today and suggested watching yet another movie on the WW2 Jewish extermination camps, I guess most of you would react the same way as I would: roll your eyes, sigh, and think "OMG, haven't we seen it all already?" And you would think of Steven Spielberg's deeply dramatic Schindler's List and Roberto Benigni's brighter, tragicomic Life Is Beautiful and you'd think that any possible spectrum, any possible angle has already been explored. Well, this is where László Nemes' Son of Saul comes in and slaps you in the face with a refreshing, new take on the now-classic movie topic.
The first time I heard about Son of Saul was when the 68th Cannes Film Festival official selection was revealed during a press conference. And, I admit, the main reason it caught my attention was because it's Hungarian and the name László Nemes looks and sounds very exotic and my Eastern European side was, by some weird solidarity, already rooting for it, but also curious to see what this young unknown filmmaker was all about. I told myself that the film would either be an instant Palme d'Or winner, because ...Auschwitz, or they'd want to be original and not give it any prize at all, because ...Auschwitz. In the end, László went home with a Grand Prize of the Jury award, which is like a compromise between my two guesses, but hey! - it's still pretty darn cool for a debut feature film. We'll just have to wait for the Academy to give him an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — we all know how big of a sucker the Academy is for soul tearing historic dramas, especially when it comes to the Jews. Hungary has already submitted it as their national contender.
I saw it a few days ago during a special screening followed up by a discussion with a few special guests, including Clara Royer, the screenwriter of the film. They showed it in 35mm (beautiful!) and I paid 7€ instead of going to a regular screening in one of the 18 cinemas that let me in for free with my subscriber card, but I really wanted to see it on film. I vaguely knew the pitch, everything else was yet to be discovered.
I have to say that from the beginning to the end I was pretty much shocked and repulsed, but there was a wicked pleasure to be terrorized like this. There's a whole new universe explored in the film: the hard work of the Sonderkommando members — a special unit of isolated Jewish prisoners which are forced to assist the Nazis in their extermination plan. The film is quite paradoxical: while being one of my most traumatic ones on the subject, the camera really doesn't show that much. László chooses to go for the subtle art of suggestion. The reduced focal area gives you hints of piles of bodies or other horrid elements, but, most of the time, they're not actually visually clear.
Half of the film's experience constitutes the work on the sound. You hear things that you don't see in the picture, thus a huge part is left to your own imagination, which has no limits and is more powerful than any image you could see. It also avoids any redundancy - the information doesn't repeat itself twice. Sound also transforms and personifies the concentration camp into a huge machine, a factory in which Jewish prisoners are tools of production and recycling.
One word that comes up again and again when I try to describe it is: authentic. The camera follows the main character's point of view pretty much from the beginning to the end of the film. You never get the chance to just quietly observe a scene from an external point of view like a visitor on a stage watching a bunch of actors re-enact the life on a concentration camp. Many will find the agitated camera with low focus range frustrating because we're used to a very figurative and narrative cinema, very detailed and explained, but the merit of Son of Saul is that it pulls you into the middle of the action and, just as the prisoners back in the day, you're constantly confused by the chaos around you.
It is the first time that I've seen Holocaust depicted as some kind of a Babel — Jews from all over Europe and brought into one place and they struggle to communicate. There are at least eight different languages that you can hear. And for those I could distinguish (Russian and French), they were spoken in a perfect accent, which is also something I appreciate in a film — it makes it even more realistic.
The storyline itself might seem very simple: a father that recognizes his son among the bodies he has to burn and tries to find a rabbi in order to give it a real funeral ceremony. While the main character has only one thing on its mind and his filmic trajectory is supposed to go as a straight arrow, everyone else around him pull him aside and send him on various other missions. He is trapped in a sort of web created by the other characters' drives. Throughout these interferences, we have a broad spectrum of different ways people try to survive the horror they're living.
We as spectators are left to doubt half of what we see happening in the film. Nobody really knows the backstory of the characters that keep the film going. And it really doesn't matter! Testimonies show that everyone, since their arrival on the concentration camp, were basically turned into a bunch of nobodies — their past was left into the past. We don't even know whether the son of Saul is really his son or is Saul just going mad and tries to give himself a reason to live? Everything is left to your own interpretation. The entire film is a canvas on which each one of us is free to paint their own impressions.
I could probably write an entire essay on the film, there's that much material to explore. In the meantime, I suggest you go see it for yourself and savor this new vision a young Hungarian filmmaker has added to the world cinema patrimony.