The latest recipient of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Son of Saul (also known as Saul fia) is an exceptionally powerful, relentlessly grim & downright disturbing cinema that takes a leaflet out of mankind’s darkest phase 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 feature film debut and it is by every means a sensational start to his directional 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 have 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 & 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 vision & hearing. 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 only 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. Strongly recommended.