Today: February 28, 2024

Son Of Saul

You would think by now that the horrors of The Holocaust have been covered by cinema in every conceivable way. But the strength of Son Of Saul is in the way it addresses one of humanity’s darkest hours in a visceral, haunting and more than anything human way. This is not about the inexplicable monstrosities that happened but an intimate and devastating look at one man’s desperate attempts to cling on to some semblance of humanity when he is treated like anything but.

In 1944 Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jew in Auschwitz. Saul’s role is that of a Sonderkommando, a prisoner whose job it is, under the threat of death if they fail, to aid with the disposal of the gas chamber victims. When Saul finds the body of a young boy in amongst the piles of murdered prisoners he makes it his mission to give the body a proper burial. As the war comes to an end so the atmosphere in the camp reaches tipping point but Saul remains focused on his task at hand.

Winner at this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film Son Of Saul is a staggering piece of filmmaking. Director László Nemes shoots the whole thing in a narrow aspect ratio of 1.37:1 which creates a portrait like frame from which Saul is rarely absent. The entire film is essentially one reaction shot of the horrors that unfold around the protagonist. The effect is staggering. As we focus on Saul the realities of the holocaust unfold on the periphery of frame, out of focus but never out of sight or mind. It’s an often chilling use of framing that allows the audience to witness without fully realising the graphic violence on display. All the while Röhrig’s glazed, hollowed expression conveys almost stomach churning indifference to what is going on around him so accustomed to it he has become.

For Nemes it is not about the stomach churning reality of Auschwitz, it’s about the impact it has had on the people within. So used to seeing death are the Sonderkommando that they take the bodies, blood and abuse from the guard as a way of life. But as they plot a rebellion in the camp, Saul becoming embroiled by accident rather than design, Saul is only interested in doing what is right for this young boy who comes to represent not only his own son but a desperate attempt to hold onto something outside of the indifference to the value of a human life.

As far as Saul is concerned he’s already dead, he is merely waiting in line like the rest of the prisoners. As one of his fellow Sonderkommando points out he has sacrificed the living for the dead. It’s a poignant moment and yet such is Nemes’ and Clara Royer’s script, and the benefit of history, that you suspect Saul’s mission is infinitely more important than the rebels’.

A sucker punch to the stomach of a film, Son Of Saul is every bit as important a text on The Holocaust as Schindler’s List.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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