You know a film hits hard when, as the credits come up the audience is left quiet and no-one wants to be that one to leave first. ‘Son of Saul’ is that film that deals with one of the most atrocious events in history and delivers a story in such a rewarding and powerful way.
1944 and we’re located in Auschwitz for a day and a half as we follow Saul (Geza Rohrig). He is a Hungarian man of Jewish faith and unfortunately he’s a victim as he is a Sonderkommando; who are people prisoners made to work for the German camps for fear of their own deaths. We follow Saul as he sees a dying boy and takes this body as his own son.
It’s so clear to see why this Hungarian drama won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s gripping, unsettling and it doesn’t let you go. The horrors of concentration camps are truly felt in this movie, the noises, the dirt, the bodies all come into the fold to get under your skin and make you understand in some very small way what atrocities happened then.
Laszlo Nemes is incredible because as a director this is his debut film. It’s unflinching and different because it doesn’t gloss over anything. In fact Nemes gives this story a uniquely personal touch as we mostly stay with Saul for the entire duration. There are a lot of extreme close ups and the frame ratio both create a gnawing claustrophobia that gives the camp a nasty enclosed sense through the screen.
In similarity to ‘Birdman’ and The Revenant’, the style of this film is calm and unbroken. A lot of scenes are left uncut and the camera moves around the space letting the moments play out. Having people dying in the background or a character just staring silently for a long while really burrows into and makes what we see relentless, there is no escape like the victims of the German officers. We can of course never get close to feeling what they felt but this story does an unforgettable thing, as it throws us amongst the mud and fire of it all.
Nemes and Clara Royer both write this feature’s screenplay and it is heavy from start to finish. Just the beginning sees the mass and madness of people being queued into a building which you know can only end gravely. The script itself is less about the dialogue which means we never lose focus from the horrendous visuals. Any words spoken play an important part in the desperate rush for Saul to try and peacefully bury a boy or other characters sparking off an uprising to hopefully break free from their captors. A lot of the time we hear dialogue off screen whilst sitting on a close up, this whirls in your mind as you picture what is going on in the background.
Geza Rohrig is a quiet force for this film, not speaking much but staring or walking with a reserved and also tortured impression that is so human but also robotic. It’s a clever performance mixing the two as he comes across like a caring father figure but then he’s switched off, silent and programmed by evil men to carry out even more evil deeds. The cast of prisoners are all brilliant too in adding to the sprawl of visceral horrors.
This is a thoroughly deserving movie of its praise and award glory, a feat of war torn crime from supposed human beings that doesn’t let up and unnervingly almost never cuts/breaks away. It’s a difficult watch and extremely raw but it’s a serious topic and handled seriously by an impressive director to keep an eye on.