"Son of Saul" (2015 release from Hungary; 107 min.) brings the story of a Jewish Hungarian man named Saul. Saul works/is forced to work as a "sondercommando" in one of the German concentration camps (Auschwitz? Birkenau?). As the movie opens, the camera focuses on Saul as he goes from job to job, leading the next wave of Jewish prisoners towards the gas chambers and closer to their death. Then, miraculously, a young boy survives the gassing. A German doctor quickly smothers the life from the boy, and orders an autopsy. Saul, however, wants to provide a proper burial for the boy and desperately seeks to find a rabbi among the Jewish prisoners who can say the 'kaddish' (burial prayers). To tell you more would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: in my life time I have seen quite a few movies that focus on or relate to the WWII concentration camps. I can honestly tell you, though, that "Son of Saul" is a unique film. For starters, the movie is shot in almost 1:1 ration, actually probably more like a 4:3 ratio, and the camera focuses mostly on Saul, and rarely do we get a full-blown shot of what goes on around him. Not that we don't know, and certainly when you add the outstanding audio-soundtrack, we realize all too well that this is living hell, and worse. Bodies are laying about, we hear the furnaces, we feel and recoil as chaos and pure evil unfolds. It all make for a very harrowing movie, but one that is unforgettable. It is often said about the holocaust that we should never forget. Let me tell you: "Son of Saul" will make you never forget. Géza Röhrig in the role of Saul brings an epic performance, with little dialogue, but body language that speaks volumes. "Son of Saul" has been pretty much scooping every single award out there so far for foreign language movies (including the Golden Globe), and I am going to go on record right now that "Son of Saul" will without a shadow of a doubt win the Best Foreign Language Movie Oscar next month. Had there been true movie justice, it would also have gotten Oscar nominations for Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay...
*UPDATE* "Son of Saul" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie tonight, as I had expected and predicted.
I saw "Son of Saul" during a family visit to Belgium this past November. The early evening screening where I saw this at in Antwerp was attended okay but not great. That is a darn shame. That said, if you are simply looking for a 'good time at the movies', I don't know that I would recommend this, as it's simply not that kind of movie. On the other hand, if you believe in 'important' movies, and on top of that it happens to be a top-notch quality movie, you cannot go wrong with this, be it at the theater (to be released in the US soon), on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Son of Saul" is HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
While no movie can fully capture the madness of what life in a concentration camp must have been like, Làszlò Nemes’ Cannes Grand Prize Award winning Son of Saul, his first feature film, may come close to recreating the experience. Written by the director and Clara Royer and shot in 35mm with a 4:3 aspect by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (“Miss Bala”), Son of Saul explores the moral dilemma of a group of Hungarian Jews known as the Sonderkommandos who were forced to collaborate with the Germans at Birkenau in exchange for preferential treatment in the way of food and living arrangements, even though the bargain extended their lives for only a few months.
Set in 1944 only months away from liberation, Géza Röhrig is Saul Auslander, a Sonderkommando, inducted on his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau under the threat of death and given the task of emptying trainloads of new prisoners, telling them lies about fresh coffee and an offer of employment after their shower, then, under the supervision of the SS, shutting the doors and standing to one side, listening to the screaming and crying. Saul’s job does not end there, however. He is charged with removing the bodies, referred to as “pieces,” from the gas chambers, confiscating any valuables they may have, and incinerating them in outdoor pits.
With the camera always focused on Saul, breathing down his neck like the Dardenne Brothers’ camera in "The Son", he moves around swiftly going from one job to the next showing little outward emotion among the confusion. He stops long enough, however, to witness the body of a young boy still breathing after having survived the gas chamber. He will not remain alive for long, however, as he is quickly smothered by the camp doctor and his body removed for an autopsy. Apparently recognizing the boy and claiming him to be his son, Saul’s seeks a Rabbi who will say the prayer for the dead (Kaddish) and give the boy the required burial according to Jewish law and tradition.
When he is not performing business as usual, Saul’s desperate attempt to find a Rabbi takes up much of his time and he is accused by a fellow prisoner of being more concerned with the dead than with the living. Though there is no narration and a minimum of dialogue (spoken in a mix of Hungarian, German, and Yiddish), Saul’s expressive face reveals a cauldron of intense emotion, more than any language could hope to reveal. We never learn anything about Saul’s background, whether he was married or even had a son, but, in his desire to provide Kaddish for the boy, he is asserting his humanity in the face of barbarism.
It is a daunting task given the circumstances of the arrival of more victims daily, and the clandestine plans being made for a prisoner rebellion, an extraordinary example of physical resistance but it is Saul’s singular act of rebellion that adds a dimension to the suffering that transcends its apparent meaninglessness. Unlike Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film, "The Grey Zone" which covered similar territory but succumbed to standard Hollywood treatment, Nemes keeps graphic content to a minimum and relies on the viewer’s imagination, wisely letting the horrors to be assimilated through suggestion and an intentionally raucous soundtrack. Son of Saul is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important and even a necessary one and, in its own way, both a horrifying and strangely beautiful one. It is a film that should not be missed.