Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival trying to save from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.
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★★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
dear lord. the concentration camps as seen through the eye of a hurricane. takes a tough "the holocaust was no bueno" stance. diffuse but still monumental.
to unpack that last fragment a bit, i mean to say that the film's "Dardenne brothers go to Auschwitz" approach creates an emotional bugger of sorts... this isn't someone placing a stone on Schindler's grave, you'll probably be too shell-shocked to cry. horrifyingly, you'll want to see it again.
but this is intentional: the idea is to capture the chaos of the camps. the busyness. the sense that there's no room for morality in a machine. the logistics of evil. in that sense, the closest comparison might outwardly appear to be KAPO or NIGHT AND FOG. but then, to think back on Spielberg and his devotion to talmudic virtue... "whomever saves a life saves the world entire."
★★★★★ review by Eli Hayes on Letterboxd
Not only the best film that I saw at the Cannes Film Festival, but one of the greatest films ever made... and I've been trying to cut down on my hyperbole lately, so trust me when I say that Son of Saul is truly a contemporary masterwork, from it's lead performance to it's immense tracking shots to it's impeccable sound design.
And it's a goddamn directorial debut...
★★★★★ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
The act of witnessing obfuscated across a sensory Hell, Son of Saul sickens and horrifies through a strict, claustrophobic POV within an environment of oppressive mechanics and limited images for the viewer to comprehend. By obscuring the atrocities around Saul – our “hero” and our accompanying presence – so that the background becomes blurred, even abstract in its glimpses of death, fire, and blood, the film takes on a respectful, moral tenor. If such an atrocity can’t be fully understood through dramatic means, then why attempt it? Even Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, an exceptional work and one of the best of its kind (ie: a Hollywood production), succeeds more as an elegy rather than as an overview or a depiction. But Son of Saul, directed by first-time director (!!) László Nemes, attempts a different vision on the subject; an outright tactile experience echoing with screams and gunshots.
It is a revitalization of a subgenre, but one which is both uncommonly visceral and serious. It never takes cinematic bravura past its logical point of serving the narrative or the surrounding geography, and yet it morphs into a thriller with representation as its true horror. It never steps over a line where I felt uneasy in terms of its merit as a work of art, but it is brutally intense as an illustration. Son of Saul, unlike other Holocaust dramas, doesn’t shine catharsis against atrocity or strive for comedy or unearned pathos. It is merciless in its mechanical structure, much like Saul’s work as a Sonderkommando, and enriched in the unceasing day-to-day sorrow. The Final Solution was genocide distilled; a continuous set of gears moving within a much larger picture of annihilation and dictatorship. There’s no way to visualize the inhumanity, such evil never halting for empathy or compassion. It makes me cry just thinking about it.
But Son of Saul did not make me cry. I was numb, chilled to the bone by harrowing glimpses and sounds just out of reach. Films like Come and See and Schindler’s List have sent tears down my face - the former through confusion and desperate sights and the latter through simple, gradual sentimentality – but the feelings stirred by Son of Saul were different; efficient, lifeless, systematic. Nemes, alongside DP Mátyás Erdély, creates frames which evoke a haziness built out of inconsequentiality and mystery. To Saul, it is all the same, day to day. The time grows slimmer by the minute, and each interaction has its own set of risks, but death has already arrived in a delayed state. As a result, the dubious environments around him fade and heighten, being both an eternal obstacle for prisoners forced to work within Hell as well as a distinct reminder of every soul passing across the frame in unfocused movements, alive and dead.
Rarely is a Holocaust film so intertwined with sensory prowess and swift barbarity, a mix which could’ve morphed into something misguided and icky if it wasn’t for the solemn, meditative face at the center of this picture. Géza Röhrig is magnetic, a human so clear and discernible that the camera revolves around his entire being, spaces seemingly cluttering and widening because of his presence. It isn’t only that the journey is solely spent with him and him alone, but that his thoughts and actions are cut from the same cloth as his surface façade; a worker bowing his head after a minor brush with a guard or the choice to quickly hide a secret camera after the fog clears. Every movement is abrupt, designed for precision and nothing else. It is the decision, whether conscious or through delusions, to climb back into the feelings of faith and kinship that gives Son of Saul an indelible, imposing spirit. Its cumulative power is one that I won’t soon forget, and it is honorable and exhilarating; a wandering display of hideousness aware of its own existence.
★★★★½ review by CinemaClown on Letterboxd
The latest recipient of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Son of Saul (also known as Saul fia) is an incredibly powerful, relentlessly grim & downright disturbing cinema that takes a leaflet out of mankind's darkest period and weaves an original, absorbing & deeply affecting story around it, all depicted in a manner that only magnifies the haunting horrors of the Holocaust.
The story of Son of Saul takes place inside the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and covers a day or two in the life of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner who, along with a selected few, is tasked with the disposal of the corpses of gas chamber victims. The plot follows his dangerous & desperate attempt to provide a proper Jewish burial to the body of a young boy he takes for his son.
Co-written & directed by László Nemes, Son of Saul marks his directorial debut and it is by every means a sensational start to his filmmaking career. The film is disquieting from the very first scene that takes us through Saul's daily duty in the camp and it is through his eyes that we get a glimpse of genocide in fully-operational mode. And all of it is shown from such an extreme close-up that it is bound to discomfort many.
The deftly written screenplay is worthy of mention as well, for it keeps a stringent focus on what's going on with the protagonist amidst all the horror, chaos & despair and never for once leaves his side. The decision to illustrate the brutal life of Sonderkommando is commendable too for they've been a subject of controversy throughout history as many consider them to be collaborators who assisted the Nazi in exterminating their own race.
Son of Saul shows that Sonderkommando were no less victims than other prisoners in the camp, for they had no control of their destinies, were inducted into the unit regardless of their choice, and were forced to act under the threat of death. Their slightly improved living conditions compared to other prisoners only existed because they were needed by Germans to keep their death factories running and while it was a cruel situation for them to be in, it did help them survive longer than the others.
Cinematography is a definite highlight, for the camera stays alongside Saul throughout his ordeal & serves as his companion at all times. It also employs shallow focus to blur the genocidal massacre taking place in the background, and the unusual aspect ratio it opts for further helps in realising its narrow field of vision. Many segments are shot in single, unbroken takes plus the very atmosphere of despair & gruesome horror is effectively maintained over the course of its 107 minutes runtime.
Sound design is another impressive element that, through the expertly assembled screams, cries & pleadings, gives the viewers a perception of what's happening around Saul at any given time, thus allowing them to imagine the horrible imagery on their own. And just like the stellar camerawork, it stays within the main character's field of perception. Editing is brilliantly carried out, for there isn't even one inessential sequence present in the final print and all events unfold at a steady pace.
Coming to the performances, Géza Röhrig carries the entire picture on his shoulders and delivers a very strong, finely layered & emotionally resonant rendition of his character. For the most part, it's a silent showcase from Röhrig as the camera relies on his body language to express what he's going through and he truly nails that part. Rest of the supporting cast also chip in with outstanding inputs but the film's real payoff is in witnessing a man's efforts to carry out a humane deed amidst reckless evil.
On an overall scale, Son of Saul is a profoundly upsetting, absolutely devastating & emotionally scarring cinema that captures the implementation of Nazi's "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" from an unsettling close-range, provides an authentic sense of what it's like to be in a living hell, and works as both a thrilling drama & an informative historical piece that retains all the harrowing reality of the Holocaust without abandoning its own story. Absolutely worthy of all its accolades, inarguably the best film of 2015, and a must-watch for all, this Hungarian masterpiece is essential viewing in every sense of the word. Very highly recommended.
★★★★★ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd
TIFF15 Film #1
Reason for Pick – Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner
Hungarian director László Nemes inaugural film captures not only the Grand Jury, but also the François Chalais Award, FIPRESCI Prize, and Vulcain Prize for the Technical Artist, and it’s not hard to see why.
A concentration camp film, but set from the perspective of Saul, a Jewish conscripted ‘special keeper of secrets’ worker, of which there are shockingly many. An event triggers Saul, who knows his time is limited, to devote his remaining life to one act of simple dignity.
When I say the film is from Saul’s perspective, it is not simply narratively, as there is precious little narrative, I rather mean that the camera ‘becomes’ Saul, following and framing him in tight composure. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses shallow depth of field combined with the intimate framing that reveals the atrocities that Saul deals with day in and day out as a blur. The director never sacrifices the film to constantly maintain this perspective, and does use cutaways to other characters, and the occasional long shot when required.
Although there is dialogue, the emotional impact of the film is conveyed in Géza Röhrig’s, playing the titular Saul, eyes. His ‘expression acting’ is one of the finest near silent performances I’ve ever seen, and up there with the likes of Maria Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.
Son of Saul may be one of the one of the finest films to deal with the Holocaust, and that’s a considerable achievement. It’s positively heartbreaking, but it’s a must see.
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