Dizzying, gruelling, exhausting, and unforgettable, Son of Saul arrives in cinemas today…
Saul Ausländer is a member of the Sonderkommando: concentration camp inmates forced to collude with the Nazis in the disposal of the dead. In return, the Sonderkommandos received mildly better treatment and longer lives. The guilt and the horror of it is clearly starting to get to Saul, who, witnessing one boy who managed to survive the gas chamber (only to be executed moments later), makes it his mission to give that boy a proper Jewish burial. He calls the boy his son, but it seems an improbable circumstance, and the film never gives us any confirmation either way. What is clear is that, in the lead-up to a revolt of the Sonderkommando, Saul’s obsessive quest endangers the safety and the secrecy of his fellow inmates.
The film, already a recipient of the Cannes Grand Prix plus the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is dizzying, gruelling, exhausting, and unforgettable. Hungarian László Nemes has never directed a film before, but there’s no way you’d guess from his phenomenally self-assured camera which, like that of the rather showier, cheaper Birdman¹, is given to planting itself just behind the shoulder of its lead actor, poet Géza Röhrig, and allowing us to see almost through his eyes. Unlike Birdman, it doesn’t ask us to buy into the conceit that this is all one continuous take; rather, the entire film is made up of perhaps fifteen or twenty long takes. This is a subjective, ground-level view of Auschwitz, with its many horrors – the naked dead dragged along the ground; victims marched into a bonfire, the ovens unavailable – only glimpsed, either at the edge of the frame, through thick fog or, most commonly, simply out-of-focus with Saul in the foreground.
For all the time that the camera spends hanging over Röhrig’s shoulder, it spends a good deal of time staring into his face also, as he is challenged to convey something almost impossible: what might it feel like to be in Auschwitz? Even given that he is only called on to portray one man’s reaction to the Holocaust, it’s an unenviable task. Ultimately, what Röhrig goes for is a sort of steely, haunted determination that is solid within the confines of the film, but doesn’t really tell us much. But then, the Saul of the script is such a strange, emotionless character that we were never going to get very much from him. We learn so little of Saul’s background, his motivations, even the bare bones of his personality that all we are left with is an absurd quest undertaken by a man to whom we can’t relate. And possibly that was fully intentional because, the thinking goes, we can’t claim to understand what victims went through. But if that’s the case then, for all the astonishing technical achievement of the film, it is a bit of a shaggy dog story when it could have done so much more. But still it feels like something of a landmark picture, and one which everyone should sit through, if only once.
Son of Saul arrives in UK cinemas today, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!