If you’re someone who has seen way too many uninspired Holocaust dramas like I have, you’d probably think there’s no way this chapter in history can be told any differently. But Son of Saul, the debut feature from 39 year-old Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes manages to not only bring home the horror in a fresh way, but also offer one of the most profound, realistic and emotionally resonant filmic portrayals of the Holocaust that never falls into the exploitative territory.
The Saul in the title is Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew working in Auschwitz in 1944 as part of the Sonderkommando, a deputation of Jews who help the Nazis exterminate their fellow inmates in the concentration camp in exchange for a few extra months of life. Early on, upon removing corpses from the gas showers, Saul finds the body of a boy he believes to be his son. Saul becomes determined to give the boy a proper Jewish burial but his efforts soon begin to interfere with a planned prison break.
Except for maybe the first and last shots of the film, Son of Saul takes place entirely around it’s protagonist. And shot in medium close-up it rarely moves more than arm’s length away from his face. This unique camerawork gives the film both a starkly claustrophobic and visceral feel while the rhythm and pacing determined by Nemes’s long, complex but never showy single takes immerse you into the film completely.
And it’s more than just a gimmick, in fact it’s anything but that, because Son of Saul doesn’t aim to make a statement nor does it aim to preach or drive home the pathos with sweeping orchestral music. Instead, this is a film about struggle, about a man broken beyond despair and about salvaging the tiniest shred of meaning from the most crushing of hardship.
Geza Rohrig’s raw and riveting central performance anchors the film. It’s incredible how much he’s able to do just with his face and his performance does such an effective job of portraying a man broken beyond repair.
Son of Saul is an incredible film. It is without doubt one of the most ambitious directorial debuts in quite some time. It is a gripping, powerful and profoundly moving piece of cinema, whose rock-hard essence lingers in the mind, even after the film ends. Son of Saul doesn’t tell, it shows, and places the crushing burden on the rest of us.