Son of Saul is an uncomfortable film to watch because it’s so brilliantly executed. Whether it’s the subject matter, the situation or the cinematography, every layer makes this heartbreaking, harrowing tale more and more compelling. There’s a reason Son of Saul was the winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix and an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944, Saul is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who are forced to assist the Nazis usher people into and clean up the mass extermination chambers.
After one mass extermination of Jews, Saul discovers the still-alive body of a young boy he believes to be his illegitimate son. The boy dies and Saul risks a prisoner rebellion and escape attempt to save the boy’s body from cremation so he can find a Rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish and provide a proper burial.
The tight, hand-held camera work that dominates most of the film focusses on Saul, following him around in close shots that blur the background. It’s an intriguing technique that’s used effectively to intensify his emotions and add dramatic tension to his nightmare life. In many ways, it is a relief that we are spared the agony of seeing the slaughter of Jews and other atrocities, but with the knowledge of the broader events already in mind, and a cacophony of off-camera voices or sounds, the intensity of the camera’s focus on Saul makes for a powerful twist.
This is Laszlo Nemes’ fourth time both writing and directing his own film, although it is his first feature length flick. He proves himself a master story-teller and has selected a star in debuting lead actor Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer.
Spoken in multiple languages, with English subtitles, Son of Saul offers surprising humanity in a dead sea of despair and compelling viewing for anyone who enjoys a well-realised historical drama.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 9
Son of Saul is Rated R, for restricted audiences, and contains scenes that may cause distress. It will be released on DVD on 30 June 2016.