EUFF Review: 'Son of Saul'

Son of Saul (Saul fia)
(Hungary, 107 min.)
Dir. Làszló Nemes, Writ. Làszló Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring:  Géza Röhrig, Levent Molnár, Urs Rechn, Jerzy Walczak
Géza Röhrig as Saul.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media

Stories about the Holocaust yield some of the most difficult and disturbing stories put on film. Schindler’s List, Night and Fog, Sophie’s Choice, and others involve audiences in stories about one of the darkest chapters in contemporary history, but no film puts a viewer so squarely in the fold of history as powerfully as Son of Saul does. This Cannes champ (it won the Grand Prix) and Hungarian submission for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscars offers a harrowing and fully immersive descent into Auschwitz unlike any film before. Son of Saul thrusts the viewer into the belly of the Holocaust and it’s like wading through the bowels of hell. This film is one intense, draining, and powerful experience.

The guide through the dark confines of Auschwitz is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, which is a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis with the execution of mass killings of fellow prisoners. This involving drama watches Saul as he guides fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then raids their belongings for valuables to be pilfered by the Nazis. As the Nazi guards force Saul and fellow Sonderkommando members to stand by the door of the gas chambers and listen to the screams of the dying, Son of Saul creates a fully immersive, almost sickeningly realistic sensation of having one’s ear on death’s door. The sound design of the film is intensely compelling  as screams and death rattles assume the role of a score—music is not to be found in Son of Saul—and the realism of death puts one right in the midst of the turmoil.

The film searches for life in the face of death, however, as the Sonderkommando discover a young boy who survives the gassing while they’re pulling bodies off to the incinerator and disinfecting the residues of the dead for the next killing. The boy might be a miracle of science to survive the chamber, yet the doctor simply suffocates him on the spot. Saul witnesses the action from a distance with notable awe and horror. The boy is his son. He cannot haul his son off to be burned with the rest of the “remains.” Instead, he seeks a rabbi to help him bury the boy and say Kaddish so that his soul might receive a proper burial.

This simple premise takes the viewer through absolute hell as Saul’s quest to find a rabbi and bury his boy leads him to the extremities of the camp. Any mistake leads to death, as several encounters end with the retort of a gun. A wrong turn even affords fatal consequences as one of the film’s most harrowing and memorable scenes thrusts Saul into a series of mass executions in a field of fire. Bullets fly into prisoners as the Nazis pull Jews at random into the fire. The scene looks like chaos in total form. It’s an image fit for Dante’s Inferno with its hellish horror. Son of Saul is an arduous odyssey that puts viewers through hell, but, like Inferno it leads the seeker out from the ashes and up into the air, if only for a brief moment of relief as Saul radiates with the brightness that a child can bring to the world.

Röhrig is excellent as Saul. The actor commands virtually every frame of the film and his Saul remains a stalwart guide through the underbelly of the camp. Visits with various prisoners, including an especially moving encounter with the late boy’s mother, shows the full range of humanity that is at stake in the camps and in Saul’s quest. It’s a great and supremely gripping performance.

Son of Saul is especially unsettling with its gut-wrenching rendering of hell thanks to the Nemes’ shrewd direction to film much of the action akin to a third party’s point of view. Much of Son of Saul features the back of Röhrig’s head squarely in the frame and follows him from behind around the halls of Auschwitz. The effect makes the experience of Son of Saul akin to being a prisoner at Auschwitz as one basically walks around and witnesses the brutality of the camp nearly firsthand. The effect conveys the sense of lived experience and, more forcefully, of powerlessness as one sees Saul’s quest become increasingly difficult as the action in the camp amplifies and the Sonderkommando recognize that they’re approaching the death list. As a first feature, the film is especially impressive and accomplished.

The effect of being a prisoner at the camp also doubles as the experience of being an angel on Saul’s shoulder. The character seems particularly blessed as good luck guides him through the camp and he encounters allies who sympathize with his wish to bury his son. Saul’s desire to say Kaddish, moreover, resonates strongly as a rebellious coup for the camp. To celebrate this Jewish hymn is to deny the Nazis’ effort to exterminate the Jews. Their faith endures despite the murders, and there’s so much at stake in Saul’s desire to say a prayer for the young generation that one cannot help but be fully moved by his journey. One feels awful watching Son of Saul, but in the most rewarding way possible.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Son of Saul screened in Ottawa at the European Union Film Festival at The ByTowne on Nov. 30.
It opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Dec. 25 and expands in Canada in 2016.

The 2015 European Union Film Festival runs Nov. 20 – Dec. 10.
Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information.