Director: László Nemes
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak
Written by: László Nemes and Clara Royer
Running Time: 107 mins
Release date: 29th April 2016
There are some films that you have a genuine fear of watching. It may be because you have heard about the horrific content or the subject matter might be one that sits uncomfortably. Son Of Saul is one such film. The winner of the best Foreign picture Oscar this year, this is a disturbing, shocking and utterly heartbreaking tale of a man’s obsession, filmed in the manner in which we, the audience, are shown nothing and yet we understand everything. It is, without any questionable doubt, the film of the year so far.
Saul is a Hungarian Jew working in Auschwitz as a Kommando, a sort of slave to the Germans, in which his jobs include cleaning up after the executions, discovers a young dead boy, who he believes is his son. Not wanting him to be burnt like the rest, he wants him buried with a rabbi present. Saul is so obsessed with finding such a religious man that he is willing to risk his life and all those around him to achieve his goal.
It would have been so easy for director László Nemes to have shot a straightforward cinematic telling of the events. Instead, he uses a technique that makes the story even more shattering. By reducing the screen to Academy size (a square box), he is limiting our field of vision. Then he shoots everything from Saul’s point of view, so the film very rarely leaves either the face of, or behind the main protagonist. He then keeps Saul constantly in focus while those around him are blurred, enough so we can make out the horrors that plague him daily, then throws in the most impressive soundscaping ever, so that every scream, every gun shot, every German order is heightened. So while we cannot see things clearly or even see what is happening off screen, our imagination is running riot.
Following Saul through the endless corridors of death or having him face the enemy at every corner, Nemes’ script (co-written with Clara Royer, is just as ambiguous as the images before us. Mostly spoken in code, Saul is caught up in a plot to escape the camp, with his fellow prisoners delivering line after line that is like listening to a different language. This makes the story even more confused, allowing the viewer to feel that sense of how it must have felt being in such a building of terror.
Some moments of the film are incredibly hard to watch. The opening fifteen minutes, just outside the notorious “showers” are both unbelievably moving and gut-wrenchingly shocking. This is not a film for the faint-hearted. A sequence in which Saul finds himself among new prisoners desperately trying to find a rabbi is tense beyond words. This is a film that will have your every emotion rung out to dry.
At the heart of this is a tremendous central performance from Géza Röhrig as Saul. Without too many words and with the camera virtually in his face throughout, this is a towering performance full of subtlety and yet he manages to express his every emotion with just a look. It is a masterclass in underplaying. Never once does he have to gurn or overplay his emotions. We can see everything in his eyes, that of a man who has lived through horrors we never wish to see, determined to the point of near suicide, to see the right thing is done. It is one of the finest performances I have very had the pleasure to witness.
Son of Saul is an important film. It is a powerful, striking, horrific film. It is also proof that cinema can be an amazing art form and in the right hands, can convey a story that hits home hard that it leaves a mark. A skilfully made yet brave movie that isn’t afraid to shock. I don’t think I will ever wish to see this film again and to recommend it is like asking you to witness unthinkable evil. Yet recommend it I must. You have to see this just to say you have experienced this truly magnificent film. That may even be underselling it.