Son of Saul is a Hungarian drama covering a day-and-a-half in the life of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is forced to work as a Sonderkommando, that is – a captive who assists in the disposal of the dead, his fellow people, from the gas chamber. While there he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son and tries to find a rabbi to give the child a proper burial.
The Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable pictures presented from a variety of different angles. Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader and Ida are merely a famous few that have won awards and accolades. Son of Saul is critically acclaimed as well and is even up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016. Evidently the topic is ripe for more productions as director Laszlo Nemes approaches the material a little differently.
What separates Son of Saul is the you-are-there vantage point of the main character. Our lead is a prisoner but his own execution has been delayed. A visual perspective from a person thrust into the eye of the storm, so to speak. The orientation is unique. We see everything from Saul’s viewpoint. The action is shot in extreme closeup, often slightly behind or right in front of our protagonist. His expression is a blank face of detachment, perhaps immune to the atrocities that inundate him. The events however are often obscured, just out of focus for the audience, and hard to view clearly. We never see the faces of the victims or even their deaths distinctly. That is a blessing. Although the sounds that surround these incidents is horrifying.
Given the theme, Son of Saul is understandably difficult to watch. In many ways it should be. The plot doesn’t follow the traditional narrative that highlights an improbable hero. Its hyper-realistic style addresses the murder directly head on with no relief to alleviate the terror. The brutal efficiency with which the Nazis oversee this evil task is a robotic death camp of mind numbing savagery. A seemingly unending hell on earth from which human life is disposed like a mechanized chore. Even watching prisoners scrub the human blood from the floor of a massive shower can be an overwhelming experience.
Son of Saul is largely a compelling drama. Where the chronicle doesn’t near a masterpiece lies in the conclusion. The fact that Saul and his fellow workers’ days are numbered will inspire questions as the story wears on. Why submit to a ghastly task that only prolongs your inevitable death by days? Some abatement from their chamber of horrors is suggested but after a while Saul’s behavior becomes vexing for viewer. Setting up a brilliant beginning also demands a skillful ending. Son of Saul doesn’t quite deliver at the same level all the way through, but it is still a very powerful film nonetheless.