Lászlò Nemes/ 2015/ Hungary/ 107 minutes
Opens Nationwide and on Demand Fri 29 Apr 2016
Son of Saul, the debut film by Lászlò Nemes, is book-ended by two scenes of extraordinary, disturbing power that justify its Academy Award for best foreign language film all on their own.
Saul Auslånder is a Jewish-Hungarian Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. Responsible for shepherding inmates into the deadly gas showers; and the disposal of the resulting ‘pieces’ by incineration, Saul initially appears a model of gaunt, blank stoicism. There is nothing more than the merest glimmer of emotion as the door slams and the banging and screaming begins. However, when a young boy is pulled alive, albeit briefly, from the gas chamber; Saul claims that the boy was his son and resolves to bury him properly before an autopsy can be carried out.
Géza Röhrig carries the film entirely as Saul. The camera rarely leaves his face, hovering like his conscience as he carries out his quest, while becoming accidentally entangled in a plot to escape. Beneath the surface passivity, Röhrig manages to express guilt, hope, despair, steely resolve, and a bubbling madness. Much of the horror of the situation is reflected in his eyes as cinematographer Mátyás Erdély‘s camera swoops around him. So much is conveyed by sound alone as Nemes films the charnel house surroundings in a soft-focus haze, or offers only brief glimpses of atrocities carried out in the periphery of the screen. The worst excesses of our imaginations are allowed to run riot as our ears are filled with peppered gunshots, barked commands, screams, the thuds of falling bodies, and the cries of babies. It’s grueling, relentless viewing as Saul is pulled and pushed from one danger to another, with a propulsive immediacy that is disorientating yet never less than utterly compelling.
Despite the bleakness and the choking weight of inevitability, Son of Saul never collapses into nihilism. Instead it seeks to find compassion in a morass of evil. There is a grim irony in Saul looking to a corpse for some degree of redemption, but his decision to bury the boy reignites his smothered humanity even as it proves incontrovertible evidence that his mind has finally snapped. What Saul’s quest provides is autonomy. It makes him an active protagonist, as opposed to a reactive, Job-like vessel to whom events merely happen, such as Adrien Brody‘s Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist, fine film though that is.
There are also echoes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in its constricted time-frame and its supporting cast of archetypal characters; vicious commanders, corrupt guards, terrified newcomers, and jaded veterans. It also shares that novella’s vivid, claustrophobic sense of place, and perpetual threat of casual violence and cruelty.
Perhaps one of the best fictional depictions of the Holocaust yet made, Son of Saul‘s lack of any melodrama and sentimentality are its strongest assets. It is bleak, remorselessly so, but by the end achieves something like transcendence and release.