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SON OF SAUL: One Of The Most Outstanding Debuts In Recent Memory

Many filmmakers have made movies about the Holocaust, yet so few are able to portray the atrocities without either becoming exploitative by staging fictionalised versions of some of the worst scenes in recorded history, or by sanitising the events in order to ensure that audiences aren’t left shocked and devastated. Austrian director Michael Haneke has frequently gone on record to

Many filmmakers have made movies about the Holocaust, yet so few are able to portray the atrocities without either becoming exploitative by staging fictionalised versions of some of the worst scenes in recorded history, or by sanitising the events in order to ensure that audiences aren’t left shocked and devastated.

Austrian director Michael Haneke has frequently gone on record to claim that the idea of making a film about the holocaust is “unspeakable”, criticising the way a movie like Schindler’s List emotionally manipulates the audience when the subject matter alone should leave every sane person feeling depressed that something like this happened in recent history.

Haneke argues that Steven Spielberg staging a sequence where concentration camp prisoners are marched to the shower and then building suspense from whether or not water will come out of the shower heads is the most offensive kind of exploitation; it trivialises a shocking moment of history in order to create nothing more than an action set piece.

This isn’t cynical awards bait

Whenever I see a film that deals with the Holocaust, Haneke’s comments cling to my mind. I now retroactively judge the movies in the same way he does, even if many of the films that catch his ire are ones I legitimately think deserve high praise (as well as Schindler’s List, he has been a fierce opponent of the revisionist history presented in Inglourious Basterds).

Son of Saul is the first dramatisation of the Holocaust that I believe appeases Haneke’s need for grim realism, whilst still managing to spare the audience the full exploitative details. To pull off this major accomplishment, it would take any director years to perfect this balance. Remarkably, Son of Saul is a directorial debut and one of the most outstanding in recent memory.

(Source: Sony Pictures Classics)

source: Sony Pictures Classics

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a concentration camp prisoner and member of the Sonderkommando, the work units made up entirely of prisoners who have been threatened with death if they don’t help dispose the bodies of Holocaust victims. Not only is his humanity being challenged in the most sickening way, with the dehumanising effect of working for the Nazis leading to everybody to refer to corpses as “pieces”, but also shortly after the harrowing opening sequence his son is shown as a victim of the genocide. Saul decides to pay a final tribute to his son by hiding his body and trying to find a rabbi to help stage a proper burial.

Son of Saul is saved from being a bleak iteration of the “triumph of the human spirit” drama by not offering any easy closure. This is a film where the spectre of death looms ever present and out of focus in the background, with the suggestion that staging a funeral for one boy when he has helped hundreds perish miserably is an utterly selfish act, not a redemption.

An inexperienced director and actor delivering a raw masterwork

Director László Nemes is a filmmaker it is easy to believe we will still be talking about in years to come. When your first feature masterfully showcases the complicated humanity of the Sonderkommando prisoners without denying the inhumanity of the surrounding world, it is clear to see that this is a filmmaker who has equal respect for the realist traditions of the European arthouse and the audience’s capacity at dealing with harrowing subject matter.

He doesn’t sanitise any of the events portrayed, but by focusing entirely on the facial expressions of Saul with everything else out of focus or beyond the frame, he spares us the most visceral images whilst finding a way to ensure they remain as horrific as possible. Nemes is clearly in awe of French New Wave auteur Robert Bresson; he tells the majority of the story solely reliant on his lead actor’s ability to express emotion through body language at horrors we can’t see.

It is surprising that he has previously worked as an assistant director to retired Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Son of Saul may be a thematically brutal film, but it isn’t devoid of any emotion like the works of that austere auteur. It instead relies on the audience’s intellect to draw their own emotional conclusions, proving to be humane even if it doesn’t offer easy resolution.

Son of Saul - 2

source: Sony Pictures Classics

Equally remarkable is that this is the debut performance from lead actor Géza Röhrig. The way he responds to the horrors of the world around him with nothing more than facial expressions for the majority of the running time is nothing short of astounding. It’s a quietly humane performance showing a man in an emotionally complex situation, having to do monstrous things to prolong a life that has long since been robbed of all dignity. No dialogue could justify his actions to other prisoners, or himself. As the camera shows his face in closeup as hell unfolds all around him, we see a face full of expression, showcasing grief and regret in ways that are quietly profound.

It is a performance rich in pure emotion, all the more devastating because the character is in living circumstances that will never allow him to express the painful feelings that are clearly there for every viewer to see. An entire article could be written solely on how the audience is to perceive Saul’s facial contortions. The haunting final sequence will stay in my mind forever purely due to the final facial expression that we see, that could suggest either emotional resolution of internal conflict or somebody finally embracing their own mortality.

Conclusion

Although it is emotionally and thematically overwhelming throughout, Son of Saul is undeniably essential viewing. It is a deconstruction of prisoner-of-war movie tropes that feels like the most realistic dramatic account of the Holocaust purely due to how it jettisons narrative closure, without removing any of the complex humanity within.

Selected as Hungary’s submission for next year’s Best Foreign Language film Oscar, it seems very likely Nemes’ debut will bring home an award from a prestigious ceremony that usually only celebrates films on this topic that are sanitised into nothing more than “weepies”. Oscar bait this is not, but Son of Saul deserves the highest acclaim for being a uniquely harrowing experience.

Is it possible to make a film depicting the horrors of war crimes without becoming exploitative? 

Son of Saul is released in the US on December 18, 2015, with a UK release to follow on April 1, 2016. All international release dates can be found here.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Alistair is a 23 year old former journalism student from the sun-soaked city of Leeds, England, who has recently moved down to Cambridge. After spending two decades as "King of the North", it was time for a change and a move down south to work at a local newspaper followed. He has been writing about film since the start of 2014. If you like his writing, his work can also be found on Gay Essential, CutPrintFilm, Cinemole (his Wordpress blog) and over on his Letterboxd and YouTube pages. Because of his work for Film Inquiry, he is also a recognised member of GALECA, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics' Association.

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