Son of Saul is not an enjoyable film. Neither is it a film to make compromises in terms of its style and vision. It is however the best film of the year so far, a tale of enormous impact and tremendous technical achievement- an artistic triumph that deserves all the adulation it received upon its arrival at last year’s Cannes festival.
1944, Auschwitz. Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando (a group of prisoners tasked with aiding the disposal of gas chamber corpses), embarks on a mission to give a boy he takes to be his son a proper burial despite it being in direct opposition to the Nazi enacting of mass burning. The camera for most of the film- trapped in a 4:3 ratio- focuses on Saul. His face, his perspective all trap the viewer, forcing one to confront the atrocities from a uniquely internal point of view.
With the property of such enclosure being so consistent throughout the film, the feeling of dread and disgust accumulates as the film becomes ever more claustrophobic. There is a level of ambiguity to every scene, filtered through a range of sharp and soft focus that never reveals the full content of what is going on. The film doesn’t go as far to be obtrusively graphic, but instead creates a sense yet more uncomfortable. Being actually face to face with Saul becomes a journey of increasing difficulty as gas chambers, medical rooms, beaches and burning pits are introduced into the movie, every new environment crafted in a way that’s incredibly visceral and moving. Géza Röhrig, who plays Saul is given the hefty task of giving his character the expression of a man without hope, a man who is forced to play a role in in aiding the atrocities. He does this brilliantly, eschewing any temptation to exaggerate his emotions in favour of giving a balanced performance of subtlety, nonetheless able to present Saul as a man not immune to what is going on, but rather desensitised. One particular moment near the end of the film sees him cast a smile that somehow captures the essence of the entire film in a single shot.
All of what the film is able to achieve is made more astounding by the fact that this is a directorial debut. Helmer László Nemes demonstrates such a mastery of the form; the film made such an impression at its Cannes premiere that winning the festival’s Grand Prix award was seen as a shortfall.
With its traction gaining heavily over the past year, Son of Saul is likely going to be a film that’s impact will be felt for years to come. A balance is stricken between the absurdity of the film’s events and the treatment of the film’s historical context. Isolated from the world outside, Saul encloses its subject along with its cinematography… there’s an almost unworldly feel here that’s effect is startling considering its essence lies in truth.
As cinema experiences go, Son of Saul is exhausting. It drains a lot out of its audience in a reminder of how powerful the medium can be when its form is realised this well. Simply a must-see.