Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Son of Saul

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Laszlo Nemes's mesmerizing and unique "Son of Saul" is unlike any other Holocaust movie I've ever seen. Set in 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the film utilizes intimate and claustrophobic camera work as it follows the titular character (played with intensity by Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, who were Jewish prisoners forced to help the Nazis exterminate Jews by leading them to the gas chambers and removing their bodies, thereby delaying their own deaths for a few months.

The picture's visuals often recall Elem Klimov's 1985 masterpiece "Come and See" and stylistically has more in common with Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" than it does your typical concentration camp movie.

The film opens with a blurry long shot as a group of people move toward the camera. Saul walks right up to the frame and, from then on, the film follows his every step, typically framing him from behind or in tight close-ups, where horrific things occur just out of our line of vision, making them in many ways more terrifying.

Some have argued that by focusing completely on just one person - and one who helps assist in the deaths of his own people no less - "Son of Saul" fails to emphasize the sheer number of people who suffered during the Holocaust. I'd argue that by centering the action around one person, especially one who is both victim and, although not by his own choice, perpetrator, the horrors are driven home in a unique way. Also, the often frenetic action taking place on the blurry outskirts of the frame add to the sense of confusion and chaos in the extermination camp.

Set during the course of what appears to be a day, the story begins to come into focus after Saul witnesses a young boy survive the gas chamber, only to die moments later. For reasons at first unclear, Saul decides that he is going to ensure that the boy gets a proper burial and, after some time, begins to refer to the boy as his son.

Whether the boy is actually Saul's son is never quite clear. For a while, I was convinced that he was, especially after he continued to call him his "son." But this is called into question later in the film, especially after the appearance of another child very late in the film, leading me to believe that Saul's quest to find a rabbi and then bury the boy is representative of something else - perhaps, of innocence amid horror, but even more likely the concept of preserving decency or humanity in such a place as Auschwitz-Birkenau by giving a dead body a rightful burial.

Due to the way the film was shot - with Saul's face as our focal point - it is often difficult to discern what else is going on and it's clear that this is a narrative choice. At one point, several of the other Sonderkommandos appear to be concocting a plot to attack the Nazis running the camp and there's another sequence when Saul obtains information from one of the women in the camp, but it's not quite clear how it plays into the men's plot.

There are two scenes when all hell breaks loose, one of which is when the men make an attempt to carry out their plan near the film's end. An earlier one acts as the film's centerpiece and is one of the most horrific visions of hell I've seen in a movie in some time. When the abundant number of people arriving at the camp makes it difficult to send them all to the gas chambers, a large group of new arrivals are taken out to a field, where they are forced to strip, line up and shot point blank, falling into a pit where a large bonfire burns all around. It's a chaotic, masterfully shot and truly disturbing sequence that ranks highly among scenes depicting pure evil in wartime.

And what makes the picture even more impressive is that it's Nemes's debut. The director previously worked as an assistant to the great - and now, apparently, retired Bela Tarr - but this is his first time behind the camera. You wouldn't imagine it while watching the picture, which is a great example of controlled filmmaking. "Son of Saul" is one of the year's best films and one of the most unique ones ever made about the Holocaust. If you see it, I'd imagine it will stick with you long after you've left the theater.

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