Son of Saul

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Son of Saul
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

1944, Auschwitz. Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) toils under brutal conditions as a member of the Sonderkommando, the slave workers forced to clean out the crematoriums after the gassing of Jewish victims by the Nazi monsters. Among the corpses, he finds a boy, barely alive, and believes him to be his son. This begins a journey into horror as the man fights to give a proper burial to the “Son of Saul.”

Laszlo Nemes, the former assistant to the legendary Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, makes his directorial debut with his gut-wrenching and unique look at the Holocaust. He is joined by another amazing debut performance with his star, Geza Rohrig, the central figure in this nightmare about the waning days of World War II and the acceleration of the Nazi genocide.

“Son of Saul” is like no other film I have seen about the most horrific era in our history. It is shot with an inventive eye, by Matyas Erdely, as his camera stays up close on Saul as he goes about the ghastly tasks of the Sonderkommando – herding the victims into the “showers”; collecting and sorting their clothes and possessions; removing the bodies and cleaning out the gas chamber (a concept I have never even considered before) and all other mean tasks. The discovery of his “son” becomes the catalyst of Saul’s hope for freedom from the inferno.

Almost none of the background activities – day to day tasks in a man-made hell – are shown in focus. Instead, we “see” what is going on around us through Saul.  He moves with an inexplicable freedom around the camp in chaos - the Nazis, fast losing the war, attempt to cover up their Final Solution and get rid of the mass of evidence against them in their genocide.

It is hard to say I “like” “Son of Saul.” It is not that kind of film. It is the kind of film that works its way deep into your spirit as it brings you through the hellish experience that is the life of Saul and all of the others in the Sonderkommando – these “favored” inmates only extend their time on earth before they, ultimately, are also murdered. Your gut stays clenched for the entire film but there is a sense of deliverance in the end that makes this, strangely, uplifting. It is my choice for best foreign language film of 2015 and I give it an A-.

In the waning days of the operations of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to assist the Nazi genocide) stoically goes through his ghastly routine.  His group is planning a rebellion, but when he spies a young boy still breathing after a gassing, quickly dispatched by a Nazi doctor, he becomes obsessed with preserving the boy's body for a proper Jewish burial, claiming him as the "Son of Saul."

This extraordinary feature film debut from cowriter (with Clara Royer)/director László Nemes plunges us into a vision of hell.  Using shallow focus and a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély ("Miss Bala," "James White") keeps us tightly within Saul's (Géza Röhrig) point of view, the barely seen surrounding imagery accompanied by the sounds of a death camp making a stronger impression than if they'd been shot full on, our minds filling in the horrific blanks.  Some have deeply criticized the film, but this stunning work about one man's last grasp at humanity when it appears to have been wiped off the face of the earth is a shattering, profoundly moving experience.

The first thing we see is an out of focus long shot of men sitting in a field.  We hear a train approaching and eventually Saul walks into focus, guiding new arrivals along a path into a chamber where we hear promises of work and a good salary, a shower followed by hot soup.  Clothing is put onto pegs as everyone is herded into the next room.  The door shuts and Saul immediately begins removing clothing from its hooks, the noise next door reaching a horrible crescendo before slowly dying away.  He remains desperately stone faced as bodies are dragged along hallways, walls scrubbed of bodily fluids.

But there is that young boy who momentarily beat the odds.  Saul finds an excuse to visit the autopsy room, begging one like himself the boy's body not be cut.  While his fellow Sonderkommando discuss plans to get pictures out and weapons in, Saul barely participates, instead taking great risk to find a rabbi and hide the boy's body (it is unlikely that this is really the man's son as several refute the existence of one). We see him inadvertently speed up one man's death as he recruits a holy man among a crowd led to a mass grave.  Another, clearly no rabbi to all but Saul, attempts to get away from him at the river where men shovel ashes into the water.

It is 1944 and the Nazis are in overdrive, the clock ticking down on their final solution, the chaotic situation an explanation for Saul's ability to move about as his own timeline's end approaches.  But the rebellion comes to pass and Saul is one of many, the boy's body draped about his shoulders, who slips into the woods.  Birdsong, less ironic than before, another river, another boy...

Grade:  A
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