Son of Saul is the most viscerally intense film about the Holocaust I've ever seen. While many other films on the subject have looked at that tragic moment in history from a distance, Son of Saul plunges the viewer headfirst into the most graphic horrors of the era. The film has an inescapable sense of immediacy; cramming its images into a cramped 1.35:1 frame and relying heavily on intense, claustrophobia-inducing close-ups. This is a film that sets out to make you feel that you are trapped in the most hellish place on earth, and it succeeds. It's an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and it's easy to understand why it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However... there's something troubling about this movie, and not just the stuff that's supposed to be troubling.
Before we get into that, let's talk a little bit about the story the film is telling. The year is 1944, the place is Auschwitz and our central character is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner. Saul is a Sonderkommando, which means that he is forced to aid the Nazis with a variety of unsavory tasks... including disposing of gas chamber victims. In exchange for his “service,” Saul gets slightly better treatment from the Nazi prison guards: other prisoners are executed in the blink of an eye for the slightest of infractions, but Saul's Sonderkommando status means that the guards will think twice before eliminating him. After all, he's doing work that no one else wants to do.
The work Saul has been asked to do has left him emotionally numb, but one day, he sees something that stirs something in him. A group of prisoners are marched into the gas chamber, and one of them – a young boy – somehow manages to survive. The guards quickly proceed to suffocate the boy to death, and then determine that an official autopsy should be performed. Saul witnesses all of this, and seems to feel a strong connection to the boy. It may be his son, or a boy that reminds him of his son, or simply a boy that represents the son he wishes he had. Whatever the case, Saul decides that he is going to do everything within his power to prevent the autopsy from being performed and give the boy a proper Jewish burial (which means he'll have to find a burial site, people to help him dig and a rabbi).
The film's perspective is a deliberately narrow, limited one: we're seeing the horrors of Auschwitz through the filter of Saul's mission-obsessed tunnel vision. Once he witnesses the boy's death, the only thing Saul seems to care about is finding a way to accomplish his goal. As he wanders through different parts of the camp attempting to figure out how to complete his mission, a variety of unspeakable horrors unfold in the background. The camera often stays locked on Saul's face (or the back of his head), pushing violent images – blood-spattered body parts, naked prisoners being shoved forward, prison guards burning people to death – into the corners of the frame. Additionally, the shallow-focus cinematography tends to render everything other than Saul fuzzy and indistinct, so we often have a mere suggestion of what's happening. Even so, the sound design makes these moments feel far more explicit than they are: you won't soon forget those screams of agony.
Son of Saul is an undeniably intense piece of filmmaking, but part of what bothers me about it is that “intensity” seems to be the whole point. This is fundamentally a race-against-the-clock thriller, albeit one that uses some incredibly dark historical moments as dramatic juice. By taking this approach, director Laszlo Nemes has – intentionally or otherwise – essentially given us the Holocaust by way of Breaking Bad; a film that seems to thrive on delivering those white-knuckle moments of “can our hero fumble his way out of this deadly situation?” tension. At times – and forgive me if this sounds crass – the film feels like some sort of Auschwitz-themed roller coaster ride, with the camera firmly focused on Saul as he is whisked past an abundance of horrors.
The other thing about the film that troubles me is that it doesn't quite have the sort of humanity a film like this seems to require. Admittedly, it's entirely possible that this is a deliberate artistic decision: we're focused on Saul, and the only thing Saul is focused on is the boy's burial. As such, everyone else in the movie is reduced to a pawn of the plot: when supporting characters are brutally executed (something that happens on a fairly regular basis), it doesn't make much of an impact, because the film only considers them as victims, not as people. Perhaps the point is that a place like Auschwitz robs people of their humanity; stripping them down until they have nothing left but despair. Still, the film even struggles to make Saul's emotional journey stick: Rohrig's performance is less about giving us an idea of who Saul really is than about maintaining the film's unyielding intensity.
Nemes has reportedly spoken critically about Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's similarly-acclaimed Holocaust drama. He takes issue with the way that film (and plenty of other films tackling similar subject matter) insist on emphasizing heroism and finding hope amidst despair. As a cinematic counter-argument against other Holocaust dramas, Son of Saul is effective: the level of immediacy it offers illustrates a key weakness of many other films on the subject. Even so, taking an 180-degree turn from convention is not necessarily a path to success, and Son of Saul makes some questionable judgment calls of its own.
For all of its uncompromising grit, Son of Saul isn't particularly interested in providing a realistic portrait of what life in Auschwitz was like. Instead, it wants to provide a portrait of what life in Auschwitz felt like, combining bits and pieces of countless anecdotes and weaving them into a thoroughly unsentimental fable. The film's ending – which inspires Saul to offer his first display of unadulterated emotion – is artfully presented, but it strikes me as more of an ugly kneejerk reaction to storytelling tendencies Nemes dislikes than an earned conclusion to the story he has been telling (again, it's that 180-degree turn: Spielberg's sentimental humanism – admittedly worth debating - is met with equally forceful nihilism). I have no wish to diminish this film's remarkable achievements, but despite the overwhelming forcefulness of Nemes' direction, it's hard to escape the feeling of Son of Saul is an elaborate stunt.
This is an emotionally intense film, and one that has moved many viewers. Your reaction to it may be quite different from mine. I have some major reservations, but I'll give it this much: it's a thought-provoking work of art that gives the viewer a lot to grapple with.
Son of Saul
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2015