Director: László Nemes
Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Sándor Zsótér, Marcin Czarnik, Kamil Dobrowolski
Seen on: 2.4.2016
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando in the concentration camp in Auschwitz: himself a prisoner, he is tasked with cleaning up the bodies after they were gassed. One night a boy is still alive after the massacre – and Saul recognizes his son in him. After the boy dies anyway, his body is supposed to be autopsied before being burned. But Saul decides that he has to make sure that he is buried properly so that he can have peace in the afterlife at least.
Son of Saul is a tough piece of film. It’s not only the story and the circumstances, but also the camera work that made it very hard to watch. It’s still worth fighting through it, though.
Son of Saul sticks with Saul’s perspective the entirety of the film. In this case this is achieved by the camera being in a close-up (or semi close up) of his face for most of the time, sometimes the back of his head. That means that, much like Saul himself, you never get an idea of the bigger picture. You’re thrown in and pushed around and can see things unfolding in the background, but if you don’t know what’s going on – the Sonderkommando revolting, among other things – you will probably not realize the extent of things until they are happening and you’re right in the middle of it. Plus the editing is so smooth that the film almost feels like it’s passing in real-time (although it’s covering a narrative period of about two days), making it even harder to get a grip on things.
This staging is very effective in communicating how most of the prisoners in concentration camps must have felt: confused, directionless, like things are just out of their reach and understanding, so focused on their own survival and their immediate surroundings that the extent of the cruelty can only be glimpsed, but never grasped. But that efficacy also makes it very hard to watch the film and every once in a while I just wished for a calm moment, just to rest my eyes. That we didn’t get it is part of the reason why the film is so impressive. Fortunately it’s generally good enough that you are willing to put in the work to make it through.
Part of that is Géza Röhrig. Since the camera is focused so much on Saul, it needed an extraordinary actor with an extraordinary face to make it work. Röhrig scores on both counts. I never got tired of watching him and I didn’t stop feeling with him for a second. Saul’s dogged determination, his iron will to make this one thing right amid all this cruelty and incomprehensibility – with Röhrig they become not only palpable but feel absolutely natural. It’s a matter of course that even under the most inhumane circumstances, decency and dignity will shine through.
I can’t say that I enjoyed watching Son of Saul. And I doubt that I will put myself through it again. But it should definitely be seen.