Son of Saul

February 25, 2016
Géza Röhrig in 'Son of Saul' (2015)
Géza Röhrig in 'Son of Saul' (2015)

Son of Saul is not the kind of film that will draw large, admiring audiences. Set in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, it is the latest manifestation of the cinema’s morbid fascination with the Holocaust. It’s a topic that generates a pre-emptive sense of emotional fatigue, as there is only so much horror one can absorb.

The argument for returning to the Holocaust again and again is that we must never be allowed to forget that terrible event. It may not be the filmmakers’ intention but such movies also remind us that atrocities are still being committed today in places like Syria, where systematic torture and murder are rife.

Even by the standards of Holocaust movies, Son of Saul is an intense experience. First-time director, László Nemes, has created a grimy, claustrophobic portrait of Auschwitz that makes us feel we are in the same room with the prisoners. The camera peers over the shoulder of the lead character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) – a name that literally means “foreigner” or “alien”. It shows us everything Saul sees, and reproduces his mental state by blurring the details of the dead bodies he manhandles daily. The effect is assisted by a soundtrack that keeps up a muffled hubbub of murmurs, screams, shouts, clangings, bumps, footsteps and gunshots.

This skilful use of the camera to reproduce consciousness, not merely what meets the eye, is a trick Nemes may have learned while working as assistant to the renowned Hungarian director, Béla Tarr. It is a more effective tactic than any amount of violent action or melodrama – creating a tense, dispassionate narrative that stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to films such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).

Saul, who is rarely off screen, is a Sonderkommando – a prisoner tasked with assisting in the extermination of other inmates. He and his colleagues must dump the bodies into incinerators and clear up the victims’ personal belongings. They describe the corpses as “pieces”, making the task seem more utilitarian. They work like automatons at this industrial routine knowing it is only a matter of time before they too are sent off to the gas chambers. As one of the characters says: “We are already dead”.

This dehumanised labour is interrupted when Saul claims that a Jewish boy who somehow survived the gas only to be smothered by doctors, is his son. He decides at once that the boy must be given a proper burial and for the rest of the film will pursue this dangerous obsession. We never learn whether the boy is actually his son, although after a while the truth hardly seems to matter.

Saul’s friends accuse him of favouring the dead over the living, but this crazed quest is a way of snatching back a trace of humanity and moral dignity. Faced with almost certain death, and tainted by his forced collusion with the Nazis, he acts as if this one gesture contains the key to salvation – for the boy, and himself.

Röhrig puts in a tremendous performance in his screen debut, although his lines are hardly more than a few snatched sentences. It is a performance defined by gestures, stares and twitches, in an environment in which every prisoner has to think about how to prolong their own survival.

Son of Saul has been nominated for an Academy Award, but it has already proved controversial. Some critics have seen it as too stylised – too much of an arthouse production to represent life within the concentration camps. This seems a mind-boggling accusation. Indeed, one can only admire the self-possession of any reviewer who can sit through this suspenseful, gruelling, death-ridden film and think of art.

Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Written by László Nemes & Clara Royer
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechin, Todd Charmont, Sándor Zsotér, Marcin Czarnik
Hungary/USA/France/Israel/Bosnia & Herzogovinia, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th February, 2016.

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