Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz
‘Son Of Saul’ is the first film to get the JumpCut UK World Cinema Club seal of approval. A frontrunner for the Oscar for Foreign Language Feature Film, ‘Son Of Saul’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015, landed in US theatres in December 2015 and is set for release in UK cinemas on 29th April 2016. We highly recommend you catch this film as soon as possible, and here’s why.
I asked a group of young Hungarians to give me some feedback on ‘Son of Saul’, from a first language/I’m-a-Hungarian point of view. They all said it was good – the directing was OK and the acting was fine but it was “just another Holocaust film”. Hmm. On IMDb you can find the “50 Most Moving Holocaust Films”, with ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) in the #1 position. Which is worrying, because ‘Schindler’s List’, apart from a number of historical inaccuracies, was just another Steven Spielberg commercial vehicle designed to get The Academy voting it into the Best Picture category in the 1994 Academy Awards; which it won!
Then there was my personal least favourite and grotesque take on the Holocaust theme – ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997) directed, co-written and starring Roberto Benigni, which mopped up several awards at The Oscars in 1999, and the never-to-be-forgotten image of Benigni clambering over Hollywood greats in a fit of exuberance to get his Oscar. Other notable films are ’Sophie’s Choice’ (1982), ‘The Pianist’ (2002) and so on and so on. And what these films have all done in one way or another is to historicise, and therefore trivialise the Holocaust, like Benigni does in ‘Life is Beautiful’ or Spielberg’s historical editing does in ‘Schindler’s List’. No fear of that with ‘Son of Saul’ though; this is a hard hitting, no holds barred right in yer face film, and definitely not for everyone. It is anything but “just another Holocaust film” and here’s why.
‘Son of Saul’ director László Nemes trained with internationally acclaimed Hungarian director Bela Tarr; it doesn’t get much better than that in the pantheon of serious film makers. Influenced by other greats like Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Kubrick and Bergman, there are definitely moments in ‘Son of Saul’ where fragments of the these masters is evident in Nemes’ treatment. Focused almost entirely on Saul Auslander (Rohrig), the film follows Saul in close-up in his role as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, where he clinically herds the prisoners into the gas chambers for execution and then cleans up the bodies after their murder. The Sonderkommandos were ordinary prisoners enlisted by the Nazis to work in the camps assisting in the murders and knowing that eventually they would perish as well.
Shot predominantly in shallow focus, we see very little of the concentration camp porn that litters most other Holocaust films. But the horror and the sound of death and destruction is persistent and is juxtaposed with close-ups of Saul’s face, which shows not a flicker of emotion or anything tangible about this character. Until he witnesses the camp doctor checking a young boy’s vital signs and then suffocating him when he realises that he is alive. For reasons that are never made clear, Saul claims that the boy is his son – a claim that might well precipitate his own execution sooner. Saul then searches for a rabbi in order to bury “his son” properly.
Shot on 35mm film instead of digital, this gives the film a grainy effect; combined with the tight, shallow focus on Saul, it appears that most of the peripheral elements surrounding Saul are blurred and thereby less significant. In this way, the audience is spared the distress and horror that many Holocaust films have chosen to include, yet the sound has not been blocked out and it forms a haunting and terrible punctuation, interspersed with long periods of absolute silence cutting to the blank impassive face of our main character. There is no soundtrack throughout this film but there are plenty of gunshots, German commands and at times the muffled sounds of distress through the walls.
Nemes is the descendent of Holocaust victims. In an interview he said about the film: “[that] the aim was to take the Holocaust out of the history books and bring it to the present. Mine is a generation that doesn’t know much about anything now. It is a disconnected generation”.
I would agree with his claim, and having asked my small group of young Hungarians, with their compassion fatigue and general antipathy towards the subject, it seems that with a film that re-works how we perceive the Holocaust, in a time when systematic religious and ideological persecution is prevalent worldwide and beamed onto our laptops and TVs every day, Nemes has produced a jaw-dropping, stop-in-your-tracks kind of film that reminds us all just how diabolical the Holocaust was and that it does not reside strictly in the past but is part of our current everyday life. Are we doing enough to make sure that it never happens again? Well are we?
Director: László Nemes
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont