Review: ‘Son of Saul’ is a Holocaust movie unlike any other
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Laszlo Nemes’s searing debut feature “Son of Saul”, which opens in French cinemas on Wednesday after stealing the show in Cannes, is a rare cinematic experience and a kick in the gut.
The Holocaust is familiar territory for the movies. Time and time again it has been superficially exploited by Hollywood as a dramatic background to plots that have otherwise nothing to do with the history (as in a recent “X-Men”). But rarely has it been portrayed with such wrenching immediacy as in “Son of Saul”, the tale of a Hungarian Jew invested with the most gruesome of missions in a Nazi death camp.
Nemes’s astonishing debut feature is set in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the second half of 1944, at a time when the Nazis were frantically at work destroying Hungary’s Jews – the last of Europe’s major Jewish populations – before the Soviet onrush.
Hungarian teacher and poet Geza Röhrig stars as Saul Auslander (literally, Saul the Foreigner), a member of the Sonderkommando – the units of deportees who were forced to push fellow Jews into the underground gas chambers, drag their bodies to the crematoriums and then dispose of the ashes in a nearby river. His character embodies the ultimate monstrosity conceived by the Nazis: the genocide of a people carried out by its own folk, themselves destined to be slaughtered in turn.
‘Abandon the living for the dead’
A cog in the Nazi death machine, Saul partakes in this slaughter with mechanical detachment. The nauseatingly close camera never leaves him, but his surroundings and victims are blurred: they are no longer human beings, merely shadows to be disposed of as fast as possible. The omnipresent sounds of beatings, shootings and harsh orders barked out in German, Polish and other languages are a reminder of what will befall Saul if he fails to accomplish his mission.
His chilling routine is disrupted when he witnesses the death throes of a boy he decides was his son. Emotionally awakened, Saul comes up with an impossible task: to save the boy from cremation and find a rabbi who can give him a proper burial. He pursues this endeavour with unflinching resolve, heedless of fellow deportees’ exhortations to help them organise an insurrection. “You abandon the living for the dead,” says another member of the Sonderkommando. In Saul’s world there is nothing worth saving, except the dead.
Produced for a mere $1.5 million (1% of the budget of the “Mad Max” reboot that debuted at this year's Cannes), “Son of Saul” is an outstanding first feature by Nemes, who previously worked as an assistant to fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr. There are traces of the revered director in the film’s awe-inspiring simplicity and its focus on the actor, but Nemes has his own style and pace.
His harrowing film explores what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi described as the “grey zone” of Jews implicated in the Nazi death machine, those who enjoyed better conditions in the camp (until their execution) but were deprived of the solace of innocence. Creditably, it does so without the perilous moral verdicts and implausible tales of salvation that have blighted past Holocaust films. “The history of the camps is not one of survival,” Nemes told FRANCE 24’s Eve Jackson in Cannes. “It is one of death.”
"Son of Saul" was the talk of the festival on the French Riviera, where it picked up a richly deserved Grand Prix earlier this year. It is the kind of beginner’s gem that turns an unexceptional vintage into something special. The failure to give it the Palme d’Or still feels like a missed opportunity.
An earlier version of this article was published in May during the Cannes Film Festival.