HUNGARIAN director Laszlo Nemes brings to UK screens his debut feature Son of Saul, an understandably harrowing Holocaust drama that won both the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in February.
Set in the later part of 1944, the film follows the plight of Saul Auslander (Geta Rohrig), a Jewish prisoner based in Auschwitz who is also a member of the Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando was a term used for a group of Jewish prisoners who were forced by the Nazis to burn the corpses of Jews who had been murdered in the gas chambers.
After observing a boy who had initially survived the gas chambers being suffocated by a guard, Saul is able to persuade a doctor not to perform the autopsy. Instead, in an act of redemption, he seeks to locate a rabbi who can give the boy, who Saul takes for his own son, a proper Jewish burial, amongst the carnage around him.
While risking his safety to ensure this occurs, he also has to contend with the agitation of fellow prisoners, who view his plans as an unnecessary distraction regarding their plan to escape from the camp.
Holocaust-themed works can be a difficult viewing and the opening sequence of this film, in particular, certainly testifies to that. To be frank, this is a film which people will be forgiven for not wanting to sit through entirely and to those that sit through it, there would be something wrong with them if they do not reflect about what they’ve seen upon completion.
Not even ten minutes into the film passes, and we already get a look at the darkest realms of humanity, where prisoners are undressed, herded into the chambers and subsequently gassed. During this sequence, and for the vast majority of the film, the camera focuses on the perspective of the main character in close-up, while the screams and repetitive sounds of doors being banged become audibly clearer.
Here is a character who has got to the frame of mind where all he can do is continue in his forced duties while being surrounded by inexcusable and disturbing carnage. When the opportunity arises for him to perform an act of goodwill in total contrast to what goes on around him, we fear for him yet we root for him. We even feel a need to tell his fellow prisoners where to go when they often brutalize him due to his risks at sabotaging for the planned escapes, in spite of their desperation.
As the title card states at the start, after a period of time members of the Sonderkommando were eventually killed by their captives. From this, we get an idea of what fate awaits Saul, but we view the piece with a glimmer of hope that the seemingly-impossible idea of escape can be fulfilled, which keeps us gripped as time progresses. Combining that story also helps in that not only are we viewing a potential escape occurring but we have the added bonus of seeing a sole man’s quest to do something for the deceased, rather than just himself.
The climactic conclusion itself is one which you will not be able to take your eyes off, fuelling the survival element and leaving hearts being faster than normal, although it needs to be expressed, this is by no means an action picture. The final scene is particular unsettling and by the end, there is nothing cheerful about this work. It is clear that Nemes is making something that retains its brutalities from start to finish, which he succeeds at with ease.
Having waited nearly a year for this since its premiere at Cannes all the way back to last May and its subsequent victory in awards ceremonies, one was expecting some modern masterpiece given the stature of what is being detailed.
Without doubt, this is an impressive debut from Nemes who previously worked as assistant director on Bela Tarr’s The Man from London. However, there are some minor plot issues that stop the film being rated higher than instinct would suggest.
The constant preparation of what is being planned does become slightly long-winded at times and a scene where Saul is humiliatingly forced to dance with a Nazi soldier does feel a tad clichéd. A lack of sharply-written dialogue sequences this type of film would have benefitted from is apparent and the conversations we hear often feel somewhat limited. Like 12 Years a Slave, the detail and importance is where the film gets its highest praise. But just because films do justice for subject matter or work as important examinations of what is detailed, that doesn’t make them a thing of genius and importance is a different thing.
Interestingly, this is the second Holocaust-themed film in a row that has scooped the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, succeeding the superior Ida. One senses that we are possibly entering a new wave of films coming out that reference the Holocaust in different ways, and if these two films represent that theory, then may it continue.
One probably won’t put this in the top three Holocaust films made, but Son of Saul is nevertheless a strong, albeit grim and depressing, study of good and evil.