Director: László Nemes
Run Time: 1h 47m
Son of Saul (aka Saul fia) is the most heart-breaking thing I’ve ever witnessed. While I can’t say I enjoy feeling like I’m getting sucker-punched for almost two hours straight, I have immense respect for this film and the story it tells.
The year is 1944. The location? Auschwitz. We spend a few days learning what it’s like being a member of the Sonderkommando — a group of concentration camp prisoners tasked with aiding the Nazis in disposing of Jews killed in the gas chambers. The prisoner we follow is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew. One morning Saul sees a boy he believes is his son among the dead. Wanting a proper burial for him, Saul goes to great and dangerous lengths to try and make that happen. His new personal agenda ends up causing trouble for his fellow captives as they have a secret rebellion planning to fight back against the Nazis. They are so close to being ready and escaping the Hell they’ve been existing in. That is if Saul can keep it together long enough to see the plan to fruition.
This movie is gut-wrenching. Need an example? The opening scene we see Saul head to the undressing room to help new camp prisoners out of their clothes to “shower”. The leader of the Sonderkommando — who is also a Jew, keep in mind — is explaining that they are to leave all belongings in this room before the shower. After they are clean, they can redress and head to the dining area for a hot meal. Men, women, and children follow orders and make their way into what they believe is a massive shower room. Then the doors close and the Sonderkommando begin to remove the clothes from the hooks and rummage through the pockets for valuables to hand over to the Nazis. Then the screaming starts. The doors start to shake. Saul must go join the other guards and press up against the doors to keep them shut against his fellow Jews being gassed on the other side.
Very. First. Scene. And it doesn’t let up for the next 100 minutes.
The story is a nasty one. It’s not meant to give you hope or let you find peace. It’s meant to help you understand an incredibly dark time in our history. And while the details of Saul and his son are fictitious, the feeling behind it and the truth about Auschwitz is very real.
To enhance the story-telling, the framing used for filming is a tight one. With an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 we see what Saul sees. The camera is most often right over his shoulder so it’s like you’re walking with him, and your line of sight is kept precisely where it’s meant to. Not that there would be sweeping landscapes or breathtaking views to behold, but the fact that you aren’t given a choice to look away is where the impact lies. This square box is where you’re allowed to look, regardless of what might be inside it.
Adding to the eeriness of it all is the fact that some of the takes are quite long. I read somewhere that no take is longer than four minutes but I promise they’ll feel much longer. That first scene I described above is only two takes if I’m not mistaken. There are several occasions where we are behind or next to Saul and the camera does not — will not — cut away.
There wasn’t any music either. At least not that you’ll be able to decipher. While music can create any mood you wish, I think the choice to have this film void of it was the right one. One less distraction, yes, but it also subconsciously set you in a state of unease. Audiences have grown so used to having music play in the background or at least sporadically throughout a movie that it’s almost like your mind will tell you that something is missing or something isn’t right. So your eyes are getting more than they’d care for and your ears are only getting despair. For the subject matter, it was the right call.
It would be impossible to segue into anything less depressing, but I do have two tidbits of somewhat joyous praise. Not only is this director László Nemes’ first feature length film, but it’s also Géza Röhrig’s first movie ever. He had done some TV acting in the late 1980s, but he did this movie as a favor to his friend László. Géza auditioned at László’s request and everyone agreed he was their Saul. Together — and with the help of an incredible cast and crew — they made an impactful film that won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (submitted by Hungary). Bravo to both men for taking on such a gruesome story and producing one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.
Son of Saul is not for everyone. It’s difficult to watch and anyone weak of heart, or stomach, should move on. But if you think you can handle it, I implore you to see it. You will leave feeling heavy and empty at the same time, and you’ll probably stay silent for a few hours with only the occasional expletive to fill the air. I can’t even promise you’ll ever want to watch it a second time. But I do promise you won’t regret it. Saul’s story, and the story of the others in the Sonderkommando, is eye-opening and humbling to say the very least. As if you didn’t already need a reason to respect and remember the victims of the Holocaust, Son of Saul will definitely remind you.
More than a few moviegoers have compared Son of Saul to a 2001 film called The Grey Zone. It’s also about the Sonderkommando revolt of 1944, devoting more time to several characters instead of one. It has its fair share of faults though. The cast and dialogue is very American. Written by Tim Blake Nelson, it boasts a cast including David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, and Mira Sorvino. And everyone speaks English but we are supposed to understand that the Nazis are speaking German and the Sonderkommando are speaking Hungarian. The only clues we get are when a character says “speak German!” or “what’s he saying?” It gets old. It’s still a powerful film and quite difficult to digest, but it’s a watered down version of Son of Saul.