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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: Son of Saul (2015)

* * * *

Director: Laszlo Nemes
Starring: Geza Rohrig

Son of Saul depicts a world of chaos and horror unfolding over the course of 107 fast-paced minutes. Although it really isn't graphic, its filmmaking strategy grabs you in an instant and leaves you feeling a bit sick and dizzy with its first-person immediacy; it's a film that is as much an experience as it is a narrative. A Holocaust drama and the winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, a bare description of Son of Saul may make it sound like the sort of movie you "should" see, in the same way that you "should" go to the dentist, but that built-in feeling of necessity does it a disservice. Son of Saul is a difficult watch, but it's not a chore to watch; it's a totally engrossing artistic triumph.

Saul (Geza Rohrig) is a Sonderkommando, a special class of concentration camp prisoner tasked with the clean up, including removal of the bodies from the gas chamber and the sorting through of the possessions of the dead, following mass execution. Despite their special status, the Sonderkommando are as marked for death as everyone else - because of what they know, the Nazis have a policy of wiping out their ranks every 3 months and replacing them with new inmates - and are plotting an uprising, seeking to both escape the camp and to do so with evidence (from a camera hidden in the camp) and written testimonials (buried around the camp) to show the world what has been going on. Saul is among those assisting the plan, but his attention is diverted when a trainload of people from his native Hungary are brought in and immediately ushered to their deaths. In the aftermath, a teenage boy has somehow, and just barely, survived being gassed and is then suffocated by a doctor. While everyone around him continues working, Saul stops cold, believing that the boy might be his son.

An autopsy is ordered to determine how the boy was able to survive the gas and Saul becomes driven by the need to retrieve the body before the autopsy can take place and provide the boy with a proper Jewish burial. He manages to get hold of the body, but he needs a rabbi to perform the burial rites and his attempts to get assistance are continuously rebuffed, those around him sympathetic to his desire but desensitized to the importance of one death in the face of so many, and in the face of so many living on the verge of death themselves, as well as being fixated on the urgent matter of their rebellion. Within the day and a half that the film follows Saul, that matter becomes even more urgent when word begins to get round that their Oberkapo (a prisoner who acts in a supervisory position to other prisoners) has been ordered to provide a list of 70 names belonging to men who are not essential to the running of the camp. Even with the knowledge that mass executions of the Sonderkommando are imminent, Saul remains determined to see his own plan through.

The worst things that happen in Son of Saul are suggested rather than directly seen. They occur behind closed doors that are sealed tightly enough to contain the gas but can't do more than muffle the screams from inside, and on the periphery of the image, blurred but unmistakable. In this way the film acknowledges the horror without exploiting it, accounting for the unspeakable acts while allowing the dead to maintain as much dignity as possible, and also very firmly aligning the viewer with Saul, as there is no point of view available except for his own. This, in turn, gives weight to his seemingly mad quest, one which prompts one of his fellow prisoners to admonish him by telling him that he's "failed the living for the dead." This may very well be true - in his attempt to arrange a clandestine burial, he makes a mistake that proves costly for the success of the planned uprising - but, at the same time, what Saul is doing cannot be characterized as frivolous. It's a matter of the soul, a means of hanging on to one last shred of his humanity amidst circumstances so inhuman that we may never fully come to terms with it.

Son of Saul emerges as such a complete and perfect artistic vision that the most surprising thing about it is that it's the first feature of director Laszlo Nemes, in addition to being one of the only acting credits of star Geza Rohrig, who works primarily as a poet. This is a film directed with great skill and precision, creating in the viewer a sense of displacement and disorder as the camera hustles along with Saul from one place in the camp to another, barely ever pausing for breath, and doing so without over-relying on flourishes that feel like a director showing off for the sake of showing off. Son of Saul has already been widely acclaimed as one of the best films of the decade (and was included in the BBC's recent list of the 100 best films of the century so far) and it seems impossible to argue with that distinction. This is a bracing, deeply moving, and fantastic film.

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