Son of Saul
Son of Saul offers a perfect circle of life. The camera follows Saul, himself in almost every frame, in constant choreographed tracking shots that rotate through a landscape of death. The movie starts in the morning and follows Saul over the course of the day, through the night and into the following dawn. Life takes on intertwined meaning.
If you hear someone state that Son of Saul is one of the best concentration camp movies ever made that might sound like hyperbole. After all how many concentration camp movies can you name after Schindler’s List? Is Deadpool the best comic book movie ever made? Is How to Be Single the best romcom ever made? Is Where to Invade Next the world’s best documentary? All these films open this weekend but cineastes will be making the beeline to Saul.
Son of Saul is the first feature film from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes but it feels like he’s been helming films for a couple of decades. There’s not a bad scene or a wrong camera move in the entire film. Likewise the actor who plays Saul, Géza Röhrig, makes his film debut with an explosive performance that instantly establishes him as a major talent. Not bad for a Hungarian with a film degree from the Film School of Budapest who moved to New York City and taught kindergarten and published books of poetry.
When we meet Saul he’s labor at the Auschwitz death camp. In return for an extra month of life Saul and others on the same crew take the bodies from the showers to the crematorium. An early scene shows Saul reacting to the soon to be deceased helplessly banging on the walls of the showers. We don’t see their demise so much as we hear and feel the cold vibration of death.
Separating bodies Saul comes across a boy he’s convinced is his son. Stashing the body Saul spends the rest of the film looking for a rabbi to help him properly bury his son. Finding a rabbi in a concentration camp is easy compared to trying to hide the body and then smuggle it outside the fences for a funeral.
Other events pop up in rapid succession: German officers finding Saul in a place he’s not supposed to be; shoveling ashes of the dead into the river; a covert attempt to photograph events inside the camp with a smuggled camera; prisoners arriving so fast that the showers can’t handle them resulting in open executions. All the time we see events through the eyes of Saul. Even when it seems that Saul might actually accomplish his short-term goal the crew gets hints that they are about to join the ashes and be replaced by new blood. There’s even the possibility that Saul is mistaken in his conviction.
Son of Saul rivets viewers’ attention with constant suspense. Saul never knows what lies around any given corner.
Son of Saul, winner of the 2015 Cannes Jury Prize and also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars, opens exclusively at the Landmark River Oaks Theater this weekend.
— Michael Bergeron