The first act of director Laszlo Nemes’ new film, Son of Saul, is nothing short of a descent into Hell. Through a tight, first-person POV, the audience looks over the shoulder of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) as he and his fellow Jewish prisoners clean and maintain one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. We hear voices over loudspeakers promising a warm shower and soup before the new arrivals will be given jobs to do for the Reich. Then we hear their screams as the showers become a death chamber.
On the periphery of the camera, we see blurry glimpses of piles of bodies. The men wear rags and handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to ward off the stench of death. It’s like something from one of the rings of Hades in Dantes’ Inferno. The fact we can’t see it in detail is irrelevant. Our minds couldn’t process it either way. After one mass execution, a young boy is found alive among the bodies. He doesn’t live long, but our protagonist becomes obsessed with giving him a proper Jewish burial, something not found inside the confines of the camp. Saul then begins his hunt for a proper rabbi and improvises a plan to bury the boy that verges on escaping. The audience follows him step-by-step with each scene revealing new unimaginable horrors.
Son of Saul is not a thriller. It’s not the Hungarian Great Escape despite how this review might inadvertently make it sound. It’s a solitary, and often quiet journey, through a mad world where the evil that men are capable of is on display around every corner. Geza Rohrig’s grim face, smeared with soot and dirt, is the only emotional touchstone we are given. He has the “thousand-yard stare” of someone who’s humanity has been bled out of him until he is nothing but an empty shell. (It’s no coincidence that “Auslander” means outsider or alien.) Rohrig’s performance can at times seem a bit one-dimensional, but his character has been designed that way. Rather than providing us with guidance about how we should feel, Laszlo Nemes presents the events of the film matter-of-factly. There is no melodrama to be found here. No horn swells in the score. No manipulation.
The extent that you appreciate Son of Saul will be directly proportional to how much you buy into the conceit of its presentation. There are no wide shots, no establishing shots. The camera lives within a foot of Saul at all times. The cinematography is a clever way to disguise the small budget behind such a big idea. There are no concerns about building an entire concentration camp in pain-staking period detail because it can’t be seen given the tight aspect ratio. As a dramatic device, it’s intended to plunge the viewer into this hellish landscape like the cinematic equivalent of a first-person shooter video game. But, as a technique, it can be very intrusive. I was always aware that I was watching a movie. The device designed to plunge me into the world of the film instead continually pushed me out of the narrative. Rather than being immersed in the drama, I felt distanced from it. This is as subjective as criticism can get so other viewers may adamantly disagree.
Son of Saul is an experience, and it will definitely spark discussion among film lovers. It just didn’t resonate with me the way I would have expected it to.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.