The exceptional Oscar-winning film, Son of Saul, arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand. Nikki Baughan (@rollcredits) reviews the astonishing Hungarian drama from Lazlo Nemes.
As a film, Son of Saul is exceptional. As a debut film, it is extraordinary. Having previously written and directed three shorts, and served as an assistant director on a handful of projects, young Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes has translated that limited experience into one of the most blisteringly authentic Holocaust films outside of the documentary genre.
At its heart is an astonishing central performance from Geza Rohrig – only his second role, following an appearance in 1989 mini-series Eszemelet – who brings strength and dignity to the most heinous of situations as Hungarian Auschwitz prisoner Saul Ausander. A member of the sonderkommando work unit, Saul is forced to help with the rounding up, and subsequent disposal of, prisoners destined for the gas chamber. After witnessing the death of a young boy moments after he is dragged alive from the chamber, Saul proclaims him as his son and makes it his mission to give the child a proper burial.
The scale of abject human suffering on display here is almost unbearable; a fact that Nemes refuses to shy away from, even as he expertly distills it down to the experiences of a single man. From the very first, the camera stays in tight focus on Saul – the red mark of the sonderkommando daubed on his back reflected in the despair etched on his face – as literal carnage goes on around him. The visual horror remains in the peripheral – terrified prisoners being herded like cattle, naked limbs post-mortem, smoke from the furnace covering everything with ash – but the impact is immediate, and enduring.
The reek of death permeates even away from the gas chambers, present in the horrendous living conditions and the fact that the sonderkommandos keep their eyes cast to the floor, and speak in whispered, clipped sentences. It’s also obvious in the flippant brutality of the guards; fairly innocuous scenes in which one officer asks the sonderkommando captain to list 70 men he could do without, and another belittles Saul’s Hungarian heritage, heavy with malicious intent. There’s simply no letup of tension, no respite from fear.
In the middle of it all, Saul is both a constant link to the cruelty and a salve for it. His dignity and determination to do right by this single boy, who is likely no relation, a redemptive spark of humanity, a reminder that love and compassion can survive against all odds. Rohrig’s performance is a masterclass in powerful restraint; his eyes dull, his shoulders hunched, he carries the weight of his terrible forced responsibility in his every breath.
Rohrig’s talent is matched by that of Nemes, who is both bold and respectful in his dramatisation of such a heinous moment of human history. His sparse screenplay and assured direction manages to convey the cold complacency of the Auschwitz guards, who treat their prisoners like cattle, without ever allowing his protagonist or his audience to become numb to such relentless atrocity. Crucial to this tonal balance is the stunning sound design by Tamas Zanyi, in which panicked screams, gunfire and the ever-present bang of the furnace become their own desperately evocative score, and the incredible kinetic cinematography from Matyas Erdely.
Erdely’s camera stays glued to Saul throughout, tightly focused during the film’s most heinous moments and following at close quarters as he risks his own safety to find allies amongst the workers and a rabbi amongst the incoming prisoners. Crucially too, the camera is always moving; we never see Saul at rest as he clears away the bodies, pockets trinkets from the deceased’s clothing, confers in corners. There is, it is clear, no sliver of peace to be found in such place.
While shot on 35mm for an authentic, gritty period feel, the fluid, modern cinematography allows the camera – and, by extension, the audience – to be both confidante and witness, implicit in the action rather than simply observing. It’s audacious, immersive filmmaking that renders you breathless; particularly during the final, climactic scenes in which the action bursts from the claustrophobic confines of the camp and widens to become rather more verdant and, tantalisingly, hopeful. Tracking across this green landscape, the camera is suddenly still; a moment of finality that, like all that has come before, is beautiful in its construction and devastating in its impact.
Son of Saul is available On Demand, Blu Ray & DVD from the 4th July through Curzon/Artificial Eye