Son of Saul is a truly terrifying film that depicts the holocaust in a ruthless manner – from inside the Auschwitz – immersing the audience in the unthinkable horrors within the death camp.
The film is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1944, and focuses on one Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Géza Röhrig) who is a member of the Sonderkommando – a group of prisoners given humiliating and deceptive privileges as trusties, with minor increases in food ration in return for their carrying the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burned, then carting the ashes away to be dumped. The Sonderkommandos are wretched custodians of death. Their task is carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating rate around the clock, as the Allied Forces close in.
Among the dead, Saul discovers the body of his young son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give the boy a proper burial in secret, using pleas, threats, blackmail and bribes – with valuables that he steals from the bodies – to achieve his aim.
The tone of the film is desperate – as the intricate dealings between Saul, prisoners and captors are carried out as urgent whispers and mutterings. Saul’s determined mission to bury his son inadvertently upsets another plot in progress, a planned uprising. During this time, the Sonderkommando are also aware, through this network of whispers, that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.
Son of Saul serves as director Laszlo Nemes’ debut, and it is a master work in tension and disorientation. The film is expertly paced, with frantic and despairing characters, mixtures of foreign languages and long-takes that are unbelievably exhausting to watch. The camera keeps a narrow focus on Saul’s face – giving the viewer a narrow perspective of the action or inaction around our central character. The tight frame, no larger than a square window, induces a type of terrifying claustrophobia and paranoia in the audience. We hear all that is happening, but have a limited view of the action. This inability to see the peripheral or surroundings creates a feeling of panic in moments of intensity. We want to know what’s happening, but at the same time, are blessedly shielded from the horrors of the prison camp. It’s an uncomfortable, but unbelievably intense movie-going experience – and one that is so masterfully created by the camera lens. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely should be praised for such expert work with long handheld shots that seem unbroken.
We don’t see everything that Saul sees, the world around him is captured in al almost out of focus glimpses at the edge of frame. We are given enough of a glimpse to understand, however belatedly, the unimaginable terrors of Auschwitz. Géza Röhrig provides a gripping and determined performance which is focused mainly on his face and raspy whisper.
Son of Saul is at times difficult watch, but a truly fierce and worthy film to be seen.