Truly a confronting and powerful film, Son of Saul is the first feature film from director, László Nemes, which delivers what few filmmakers have before by following a resident of a Holocaust concentration camp. Gripping from beginning to end, Son of Saul floats between horror, thriller and drama, and is never afraid to shy away from even the darkest of moments.
Set in Auschwitz during the Second World War, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner that works clearing the bodies of the dead that are forced into the gas chambers. Having survived by shutting off his humanity, it’s only when a young boy briefly survives after being exposed to the deadly gas that Saul decides to take action against his captors. Under the belief that the boy is his son, Saul desires to claim the boy’s body from the camp’s doctor before being dissected for an autopsy to see why he survived longer than the others. Appeasing to the doctor’s own sense of morality, Saul is able to steal the body and must then seek a Rabbi in the crowds of the many facing certain death in the chambers, with the hope to perform final Jewish rituals so that he can be buried. But with the group planning a rebellion, Saul’s wish could risk not only his life, but also those of his fellow workers.
The largest draw to the film is it’s truly differing perspective. The character of Saul doesn’t exist to make grand acts of bravery fighting his captors or speeches of morality, instead he’s a window into the mundane of the Holocaust. Disposing of bodies becomes second nature to all of the workers, each finding a way to switch off the psychological effects of their forced betrayal against their people, and go about their new lives as best they can. It’s only when Saul discovers his son that a spark of hope seems to be triggered, allowing him to invest in this single act as a way of reconnecting with the world that he’s lost.
The film is purposefully ambiguous in many moments, and while some viewers may find this a hinderance in the search for answers, Nemes use of unanswered questions mimics the true experience of life. More importantly, Saul’s act of morality or perhaps humanity, becomes the sole focus. When Saul meets with another prisoner, presumed to be his wife, Nemes keeps their interaction vague and light without ever confirming this beyond speculation. That’s because this life no longer exists, or at least cannot exist within the confines of the gas chambers.
Röhrig’s (Eszmélet) performance is captivating from the moment he stumbles on-screen, to the final startling image of him that will stay with most audiences long after they have left the cinema. He never falters under the immense weight that rides on his ability to carry not only the film, but the audiences investment in a character that could so easily harbour dislike for the acts he commits. For most of the film he carries a red ‘X’ on his back, symbolising his position in the chambers, but it also represents the viewers focus on Saul and the importance of his story.
While likely to be confronting for some, Nemes’ Son of Saul is a film needed to capture an experience of life and death in the Holocaust that has seldom been touched on, if ever.