We are beings of purpose. We search for it, are driven by it and do our utmost to sustain belief in its utility. László Nemes’ debut feature, Son of Saul, brushes shoulders with greatness, wringing a drop of humanity from the arid planes of genocide. The irrepressible purpose of one man finds light in history’s darkest hours.
Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a section of Jews used as workers in concentration camps. When Saul spots a boy’s corpse that he thinks is his son, it becomes his mission to bury him in a humane manner in accordance with his faith. Our protagonist races to find a rabbi before his inevitable execution, whilst also being swept up in a resistance movement gathering momentum within the camp.
"SON OF SAUL IS A TRIUMPH"
Son of Saul stands out among the crowd of Holocaust dramas with its bold cinematography, brutal soundscape and the strength of its lead performance. These three elements to Nemes’ film transport you to its hell, rubbing the blood and ashes of incomprehensible tragedy into your palms.
The camera is almost always on Saul. The claustrophobic aspect ratio, use of shallow focus and constant close-ups tether you to his face, beaten of humanity. The way Nemes allows his audience to linger on Saul in the many long takes is agonising, punctuating scenes with the aching feeling that each second could be Saul’s last. For this, Röhrig is perfectly cast. His laboured whisper characterises Saul’s broken soul; as do his cavernous eyes.
Nemes’ greatest achievement is perhaps the soundscape. While Röhrig occupies our vision, the sounds of brushes scrubbing away blood, great fires burning the dead and shovels dumping human ash eliminate any chance of censoring the horror.
We as viewers are spared in the end by Saul’s purpose. His unerring endeavour to salvage some reason in the face of annihilation is timeless, and makes Son of Saul a triumph.
More like this: Schindler's List (1993)