Son of Saul

Son of Saul ★★★★★


The act of witnessing obfuscated across a sensory Hell, Son of Saul sickens and horrifies through a strict, claustrophobic POV within an environment of oppressive mechanics and limited images for the viewer to comprehend. By obscuring the atrocities around Saul – our “hero” and our accompanying presence – so that the background becomes blurred, even abstract in its glimpses of death, fire, and blood, the film takes on a respectful, moral tenor. If such an atrocity can’t be fully understood through dramatic means, then why attempt it? Even Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, an exceptional work and one of the best of its kind (ie: a Hollywood production), succeeds more as an elegy rather than as an overview or a depiction. But Son of Saul, directed by first-time director (!!) László Nemes, attempts a different vision on the subject; an outright tactile experience echoing with screams and gunshots.

It is a revitalization of a subgenre, but one which is both uncommonly visceral and serious. It never takes cinematic bravura past its logical point of serving the narrative or the surrounding geography, and yet it morphs into a thriller with representation as its true horror. It never steps over a line where I felt uneasy in terms of its merit as a work of art, but it is brutally intense as an illustration. Son of Saul, unlike other Holocaust dramas, doesn’t shine catharsis against atrocity or strive for comedy or unearned pathos. It is merciless in its mechanical structure, much like Saul’s work as a Sonderkommando, and enriched in the unceasing day-to-day sorrow. The Final Solution was genocide distilled; a continuous set of gears moving within a much larger picture of annihilation and dictatorship. There’s no way to visualize the inhumanity, such evil never halting for empathy or compassion. It makes me cry just thinking about it.

But Son of Saul did not make me cry. I was numb, chilled to the bone by harrowing glimpses and sounds just out of reach. Films like Come and See and Schindler’s List have sent tears down my face - the former through confusion and desperate sights and the latter through simple, gradual sentimentality – but the feelings stirred by Son of Saul were different; efficient, lifeless, systematic. Nemes, alongside DP Mátyás Erdély, creates frames which evoke a haziness built out of inconsequentiality and mystery. To Saul, it is all the same, day to day. The time grows slimmer by the minute, and each interaction has its own set of risks, but death has already arrived in a delayed state. As a result, the dubious environments around him fade and heighten, being both an eternal obstacle for prisoners forced to work within Hell as well as a distinct reminder of every soul passing across the frame in unfocused movements, alive and dead.

Rarely is a Holocaust film so intertwined with sensory prowess and swift barbarity, a mix which could’ve morphed into something misguided and icky if it wasn’t for the solemn, meditative face at the center of this picture. Géza Röhrig is magnetic, a human so clear and discernible that the camera revolves around his entire being, spaces seemingly cluttering and widening because of his presence. It isn’t only that the journey is solely spent with him and him alone, but that his thoughts and actions are cut from the same cloth as his surface façade; a worker bowing his head after a minor brush with a guard or the choice to quickly hide a secret camera after the fog clears. Every movement is abrupt, designed for precision and nothing else. It is the decision, whether conscious or through delusions, to climb back into the feelings of faith and kinship that gives Son of Saul an indelible, imposing spirit. Its cumulative power is one that I won’t soon forget, and it is honorable and exhilarating; a wandering display of hideousness aware of its own existence.

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