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Hungary 2015
Directed by
Laszlo Nemes
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Son Of Saul

Synopsis:  It’s October 1944 and Hungarian-Jew, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who were separated from their fellow Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau and forced to assist the Nazis in the day-to-day procedure of mass extermination until they, themselves experienced the same fate. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the corpse of a Hungarian boy. When the members of the Sonderkommando learn that they are soon to be exterminated they plan an escape. But Saul becomes focused on an impossible task: to save the child's body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner's Kaddish and provide this boy who he treats as his ‘son’ with a proper burial.

Treading similar territory to fellow Hungarian, Lajos Koltai’s 2005 film Fateless, writer/director László Nemes has made an astounding debut with this excruciatingly heart-breaking and despair-filled story of one man clinging to the slimmest shred of his humanity and beliefs in the most horrendously inhumane situation. Son of Saul is a grim but compelling film with an astonishing performance at its heart.

From the moment Géza Röhrig moves towards us coming slowly into focus in the enigmatic opening shot, he is barely off the screen, constantly moving with eyes averted, sometimes from his Nazi captors but mostly from the horrors in which he is forced to participate.  With next to no exposition other than a title-card explaining the role of the Sonderkommando, we very quickly come to understand what is going on here as we follow Saul through the matter-of-fact processing of the latest train load of Jews who are cajoled into the ‘showers’ with the promise of hot soup at the end of their induction. Saul gives nothing of the truth away as he guides them with a gentle but steady hand, helping them to disrobe and moving them into the line that will take them to their deaths. With the great iron doors closed the next stage of searching their clothing for valuables gets underway while the muffled screams and cries for help continue on the other side of the door. It’s a horror played out with no intrusive soundtrack and next to no dialogue. For Saul, this is not an unusual day. It’s routine.

Director Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély have made a bold choice shooting most of the film from the point-of-view of someone standing behind or alongside Saul; close and claustrophobic and resisting the temptation to look up. The result is, for the most part, powerful and unsettling relying heavily on sound designer Tamás Zányi’s excellent off-camera soundscapes and, of course, the audience’s imagination to imply events just out of view. Even if the camera technique wears a bit thin by the end of the film it is, nevertheless, profoundly effective in putting us right there in the middle of the action and the lack of any emotive music (other that over the end credits) is just one more creative choice that distinguishes this work from almost any other film set in a concentration camp.

Röhrig’s outstanding performance is uniformly supported by the rest of the cast who bring an equal level of focus and realism to their roles making it hard, at times, to remember that these are actors playing roles. Notable amongst them, though, is Levente Molnár as Abraham, the closest thing Saul has to a friend in this place where there is no real camaraderie. The final scenes, as inevitable as they may be, are still poignant, sad and shocking and provide a fitting end to a remarkable film.

FYI: Son of Saul won the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards.




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