English Title: Son of Saul
Original Title: Saul fia
Language: Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian
Genre: Drama, War
Director: László Nemes
Music: László Melis
Cinematography: Mátyás Erdély
The debut feature film from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, SON OF SAUL wins Oscar’s BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE in 2016, it is a hard-nosed Holocaust drama takes a unique focal point of one particular Sonderkommando (Nazi’s death camp inmates who are chosen to dispense with gas chamber victims), the Jewish-Hungarian Saul Ausländer (Röhrig, sometimes feels stilted but overall quite an endeavor from a non-professional).
From the word go, Nemes’ discreet modality of entirely putting Saul at the center stage grandly comes home to the audience, starting from an out of focus shot slowly clings to its object Saul, our visual cynosure, then meticulously follows his steps (a back-of-his-head vantage point) and only shows us what is happening strictly from his prospect, it is an intriguing and contained ploy, on one hand, the film waives a holistic view of the happenings, for fear that the uncompromising atrocity it scrupulously re-enacts is too much for viewers to bear, thus mercifully we are only presented with glimpses through Saul’s constant movement, who seems to be strung-out yet benumbed, most of the time, he keeps to himself; on the other hand, the skimpy scenes are no less soul-stirring, the gas chamber, piles of naked cadavers, incinerators, dumping truckloads of ashes, the rampant slaughter, the whole package is there (a sterling job for its production designer, the Hungarian architect László Rajk Jr.), selectively materializes predicated upon Saul’s presence, one indubitable merit of Nemes’ picture is it has miraculously re-created a reliving the horror experience that possibly errs on the side of being so vicarious that one is instinctively repelled and tries to turn away from it. That is an inextricable dilemma of any film, cinema aims to engross, however, when the subject it depicts is inherently repugnant and horrendous to a fault, as a result we are often mired between these two disparate states, a self-inflicted masochism.
Is there any redeeming grace to temper the milieu’s inhuman brutality and its overlaying smothering? Yes, there must be, it is Saul’s spur-of-the-moment decision to carry out a proper Jewish burial for a boy who dies after barely surviving the gas chamber and whom he claims to fellow inmates is his son (is it true? the answer is deliberately moot, but one inclines to nay, which makes Saul’s action more perverse and improbable, maybe he thinks the boy’s ephemeral survival is a numinous call for his action), so the imperative mission for him is to find a rabbi to officiate the burial, meantime, chivvied by Abraham (Molnár), another Sonderkommand, he is also embroiled into an impending uprising as their last attempt to scupper their imminent doomsday, but Saul is halfhearted. Granted that Saul’s intransigency gravely compromises his contribution to the nobler/righteous cause (to an extent that he will lose those precious smuggled gun powders, and volunteer his own demise just to find a rabbi during the infernal pandemonium), the film perilously threats to negate its own raison d’être, which is to retain an infinitesimal trace of faith and courage to survive under such egregious monstrosities in the manifestation of defiance, Jews are being decimated, but their culture and rituals are deathless.
In the end of the day, Saul’s effort is futile, the rabbi he rescues is a sham, the body fails to be pushing up the daisies and when the camera finally veers from Saul after his hard-earned smile, what manifests is not a glint of hope but a consolation or a surrender only too soon will be rendered insignificant, ambiguity again takes an upper hand in this harrowing exploitation of the Holocaust, for all its calculated aesthetics, its impact is confounding and its laurels are undue.
referential points: Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993, 8.9/10); Roman Polanski’s THE PIANIST (2002, 9.0/10).