Son of Saul

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The finest Holocaust film since “Schindler’s List”.
★★★★
Movie Review #1,052

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Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  Drama-History-Thriller.  Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.  Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.  Released January 15, 2016.  Directed by László Nemes.  Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer.  Starring Géza Röhrig, Sándor Zsótér, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, and Marcin Czarnik.

The Holocaust is a subject that never fails to sicken.  Forgive me for sounding so incredibly naïve, but the thought had never crossed my mind that, once one group of prisoners had been exterminated in a gas chamber, another group was tasked to clean up their remains.  “Son of Saul” hit me as a disturbing wakeup call.  In the opening scenes alone, we watch a group of Jews known as “Sonderkommando” (“special squad”) stand along a brick wall, listening asa wave of terrified screams begins to erupt behind it.  Once the screaming comes to an end, the gas shuts off, and they rush in to clean up the carnage.

Not every Jew who was targeted during World War II was faithful to his or her religion.  That’s why “Son of Saul” is captivating: the power of the protagonist’s spirituality.  Saul (Géza Röhrig) knows he’s going to die soon, and in fact it is the final 36 hours of his life that the film covers.  Saul spends his final day and a half forming a spiritual connection with a boy that has been executed, as if the boy were his son.  He refuses to put this boy in an oven with the rest of the bodies.  Instead, he searches desperately for a rabbi who is willing to perform a proper Jewish ritual to bury the boy.

Röhrig’s performance as Saul leaks with authenticity.  He impeccably embodies the nondescript character, defined by his religious passion as much as by his humanistic disposition.  Equally commendable is the film’s technical brilliance.  The crematoria are well-built set pieces that further evoke the harrowing atmosphere, which is terrifically established by first-time director Lázsló Nemes.  What’s more, the film is shot on 40mm film, a standard that is mostly unheard of in any era of cinema.  Compressed to the square-like Academy ratio of the 1930s, Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography offers a tense, entrapping sensation to his audience.

Lázsló Nemes has made an extraordinary debut as the director of “Son of Saul”. Not since “Schindler’s List” has the Holocaust been so masterfully presented, and not since “Sophie’s Choice” has anyone captured the time so strikingly.  The famous climactic revelation in the film, along with its finale, was extremely mortifying.  That traumatic feeling is spread throughout “Son of Saul”.  The film is now nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is in fact the frontrunner of that category. And rest assured, its position is well-justified.

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