Son of Saul is a Hungarian holocaust drama directed and co-written by László Nemes which has swept up awards at the Golden Globes, Cannes and the Oscars.
The story is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and follows main protagonist Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig). Saul is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando (prisoners at Auschwitz who were kept alive to help run the camp) who finds the body of a child and makes it his mission to give him a proper Jewish burial amidst a prisoner uprising.
As you've probably guessed by now this film is no picnic but I think it's important to remember that not all cinema aims to, or even has to, entertain. This is a harrowing, challenging film but it is also a vital one as the horrors of yesterday must never be forgotten. The film respects and echoes this sentiment as seemingly every choice in the film-making process revolved around creating it as realistic as possible. The writers spent years researching the topic and holocaust survivors, academics and historians alike have praised the film's accuracy. The film-makers even came up with their own “dogma” of sorts with rules such as not making the film look beautiful and not allowing themselves to make a horror film.
Further aiding this sense of verisimilitude is the fact that it's set over the course of a day and a half – specifically on the 6th and 7th of October 1944, when an actual uprising by Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz-Birkenau took place. There are also other scenes which echo real-life events such as prisoners covertly taking photographs of the atrocities which directly reference this photo. A crematorium was recreated in a warehouse with historian Zoltán Vági providing supervision of the production with tiny details such as how the paint would look and where the lighting would be – even down to the specific light bulbs. The level of detail and consideration that went into this film is simply incredible.
The film is presented in the unusually small aspect ratio of 1.375:1 and solely uses 40mm lenses which make for a very shallow depth of field meaning anything further than a few feet away is out of focus. It also utilises long takes and the camera is stuck to Saul as if compelled by an unseen magnetic force. These stylistic choices present us with a confusing, not fully comprehensible view of the world from a very singular, realistic and personal perspective.
The sound design was similarly meticulous as it took five months to attach human voices in eight languages to the original recording, with the sound designer describing it, "as a sort of acoustic counterpoint to the intentionally narrowed imagery". Firstly it's nice to see mainland Europeans keeping their mother tongue and not having the English language imposed on them, as if so often the case. Secondly it's impeccably applied in the finished product as the multi-lingual words of the discombobulated crowds add to the pervasive sense of disorientation.
Moreover the frequent screams and cries in the background, along with the sensitively handled but disturbing and dense imagery, are quite simply hellish. The film's modest approach to on-screen violence is commendable and in the absence of melodrama makes these fleeting glimpses all the more impactful. Allegedly composer László Melis attempted to make the score so subtle that viewers won't even notice it – a task he must have excelled at as I didn't even realise there was a soundtrack until I read about it.
But Son of Saul is not merely a formally impressive piece of historic torture porn; there's a huge amount of political and emotional resonance here too. It actively poses questions about the Sonderkommando and how far it's members could be considered be fully innocent victims and explores the different ways people react to such horrific situations. It also chronicles the prisoners' attempts at an uprising and how others sought to document the atrocities, ultimately asking if individuals, in the face of such oppression, have a duty to contribute to collective resistance or can be redeemed by personal and/or spiritual triumphs.
I was constantly asking myself how I react in such a scenario – would I try to run? Would I fight? Would I embrace my role as a destroyer of my own people or would I just crumble under the weight of such extraordinarily cruel circumstances? It's a film which encourages debate and lingers on the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The weak link in the chain, for me at least, was the character of Saul and more specifically the personal quest he undertakes. There is a lot of ambiguity here but Saul may or may not have found the body of his son and decides that against all odds he will give this boy a correct Jewish burial.
His single-mindedness in this mission is maddening and was not particularly engaging, especially as we learn nothing of the boy's life and next-to-nothing about Saul himself. His dialogue is kept to a minimum and he comes off as an unlikeable character who acts selfishly and foolishly at almost every turn. Of course it's hard to judge anyone in this situation but I found him very hard to relate to and his storyline felt like the least interesting the film-makers could have chosen to focus on.
The fact that I still really got on with Son of Saul despite my misgivings about it's main character and plot is a testament to how incredibly engrossing, affecting and vital this film as a whole is. Quite frankly it's mind-boggling to think, considering the amount of careful consideration and planning this film took, that this is Nemes's first feature length film and I'm really excited to see what he does next. I'm going to give it an 8/10 and would recommend it to fans of Schindler's List, The Grey Zone, The Pianist and Come and See.
Have you seen Son of Saul and if so what did you think of it? As always, let me know in the comments below and make sure to subscribe for more reviews coming soon!