Two days in the life of Saul Auslander, Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando at one of the Auschwitz Crematoriums who, to bury the corpse of a boy he takes for his son, tries to carry out his impossible deed: salvage the body and find a rabbi to bury it. While the Sonderkommando is to be liquidated at any moment, Saul turns away of the living and their plans of rebellion to save the remains of a son he never took care of when he was still alive.Written by
László Nemes' modern masterwork dwarfs every other film on offer.
You cannot take the Holocaust lightly in film. Some have tried, but it fails. László Nemes' Son of Saul takes the Holocaust very seriously. Instead of recounting it in a sombre documentary-esque way such as Schindler's List or even the gut-wrenching approach Alain Resnais takes to Night and Fog, we are utterly present in its unpredictable and relentless horror. While most Holocaust films struggle between their representation of order and chaos, often deciding to switch between the two when necessary, Son of Saul finds the ideal balance, showing these small shards of order within the chaos. The most fascinating idea of its premise is to show the prisoners appointed with the tasks of guiding victims into the gas chambers, organising their belongings and then cleaning up after them. It's a well oiled and melancholic cog, while we know every hard effort to scrub and pull is in vain as their eventual death is only postponed and not evaded.
Saul, played by first-timer and established poet Géza Röhrig, is one of those Sonderkommando prisoners forced to work towards the Final Solution. Our narrative follows him for only two days, but that's all we need to know to get a gruelling snapshot of his minute-to-minute struggles. When a boy nearly survives the gas but is pronounced dead shortly after, Saul recognises him – at least on some level, as it's never clear if the boy is his kin or not, but it is apparent he never took care of his own when he had the chance – and takes him as his son. To himself, he insists on giving his son a clandestine burial which must be officiated by a rabbi. Salvaging the body, locating a rabbi and performing even a small burial is near impossible despite them being in essentially a mass graveyard. Meanwhile, his peers are plotting an escape along with destroying the crematorium and will require Saul's help. However, he cannot assist both futile missions simultaneously.
The film has an incredibly unique approach to the concentration camps. Shot on a tightly framed 35mm hand-held camera, the photography is almost always focused on Saul, leaving the atrocities offscreen or out of focus, but often vividly audible. If there is any complaint, it's that the editing suffers from its long-take construction, but the sound design is an absolute masterclass. Saul's face remains stoic but Röhrig soaks it all in, leaving his mournful expression to interpretation. While he's apparently numb, he's always fully invested in the moment. No scene is quite as hard-hitting as when we watch Saul listen to the screams of people dying in the chambers while he waits outside their doors. It's his one break from being forced to work, and he'll immediately have to remove bodies when it's finished. The way the film builds these routines are very intimate and exhausting and despite being a fictionalised story, it feels very real. Those rituals of removals and cleaning are contrasted with the Jewish rituals that guide their faith, and especially Saul's burial plan.
But beyond the intense yet ambiguous horrors that show the cruellest side of humanity there's ever been in the modern world – despite us never getting close to a Nazi beside brief encounters – the film finds its emotional core in small gestures of compassion. Nobody is required to help Saul, especially in knowing the dangers involved, but there's an unspoken bond between every prisoner to help one another regardless. When he finds the rabbi who agrees to perform the service, it's not powerful because they've been stripped down and Nazis are murdering new arrivals around them – nothing compares to the experience of this scene – it's powerful because the rabbi says yes in spite of that. If they can redeem one shred of morality, it is a small victory and triumph of faith. Saul never lets go of that idea, even when he risks sabotaging the escape mission inadvertently. His mission to bury his son becomes increasingly arbitrary, but never without redemptive merit on a grand scale.
This is an astounding debut film for László Nemes on every level. Even a seasoned visionary director would struggle in such a precise execution. Having worked for the excellent Hungarian director Béla Tarr, his influence is clearly felt here. Tarr also uses long shots and utilises impassive protagonists but Nemes' work is much more dense, engaging, and arguably accessible in its own way but mostly for the immediate empathy the situation earns. While it matches Tarr's poetry, it's a lot more theatrically dramatic. Every one of the supporting cast is on a razor's edge though they never outshine the constantly pushed, pulled, and shoved Röhrig. He need not step in front of the camera again after this soon to be iconic accomplishment. The film's power is immobilising and thoroughly unforgiving, but with good reason. Son of Saul, with its immaculate production, attention to detail, and own noble mission, is not only one of the best of the year but one of the best of the decade. Despite its small scope, it dwarfs every other film on offer this year.
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