Son of Saul’s incredible filmmaking takes us inside the Holocaust in a new and unique way, but the happenstance surrounding Saul and the holes it asks the viewer to fill hold it back in the end.
Working at Auschwitz as a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jews who assisted the Nazi’s in the mass executions, Saul’s routine is thrown into flux when a young boy survives the initial gassing and Saul becomes determined to give him a proper Jewish burial. Saul’s attempt to keep track of the boy, find a Rabbi and navigate an impending Sonderkommando revolt fills the rest of the runtime and the results are an intense journey through the horrors of Auschwitz.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Son of Saul is extremely well done. Shot with a shallow focus, we are often exposed to much of the atrocities in a blurry field of vision, but that doesn’t make it any less horrific. People are humiliated and stripped, the screams of death and fear fill the air constantly, and you are still very much aware of the countless dead bodies being shipped around the facility, piled up to be burned in incinerators, or being shot directly into mass graves and flamethrowed. László Nemes is sparing our eyes, and I assume his budget, by keeping us over Saul’s shoulder the majority of the film, but the brief instances he breaks that form to show us the violence, mixed with the incredible detail the film is filled with at all times, your imagination is left to fill the gaps with the worst you can imagine. I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know, what a more horrifying depiction of the concentration camp murders looks like.
Nemes also fills his film with a multitude of impressive long takes, the pinnacle of which sees Saul searching for a Rabbi in the midst of an overflow execution. Or the one where he swims across a river. Or the opening shot of the film as we follow new arrivals to the gas chamber. There is a lot of amazing direction and staging on display, and it’s easier to appreciate in hindsight when you aren’t wrapped up in the terror Nemes is spinning around you. I touched on the sound design above, but it can’t be understated at how essential it is to creating the whole experience; and making the film so chilling.
What holds the film back for me is just how forced upon the “story” that drives things forward is upon the film and the huge amount of coincidence and believability jumps Nemes asks you to make. I know I shouldn’t be too bent outta shape about this, as I think Nemes was going more for an experience, but Saul seems to cross a lot of boundaries that would get him killed over and over again in the film.
Saul’s mental state is also quite the enigma, but I can roll with this more than my issues above. You can easily get on board with someone having a psychotic break being in this environment, but a lot of questions get raised along the way with him and I kind of wish we got a bit more information about them. Who was the woman in the resistance he encounters, did he really have this kid out of marriage, why was there such a desire after all the indiscriminate death to give this kid a proper funeral? Also, Nemes gives us the slightest bit of hope and I wish he didn’t take it all away.
Géza Röhrig is in basically every frame to the film and he brings a physical presence needed to convey Saul’s urgency when we are seeing nothing but his back. He also has a face that expresses pain as much as any I’ve seen, but when he opens his mouth something seems a bit off. Luckily, Röhrig doesn’t speak all that much, but I wonder if he could have done something that let us into Saul’s psyche a bit more.
Son of Saul is a technical marvel. The filmmaking and the production team’s ability to recreate this environment is impeccable, but I felt emotionally distant from the proceedings. A more believable story and a slightly more capable lead actor might have made a difference, but Son of Saul is still something you should definitely see if you can handle the subject matter.