In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.
This year’s winner of the ‘Best Foreign Language’ film at the Academy Awards is a Hungarian film about a Sonderkommando member at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The Sonderkommando were work units made up of prisoners at the camps, who were forced to carry out various tasks under the threat of death, and ‘Son of Saul’ follows one of these prisoners throughout a day and a half in his life. That person is Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a man who performs his daily tasks with a passive and detached approach, until one day he witnesses a young boy who has managed to survive the gas chamber. After a Nazi doctor suffocates the boy and designates his body for an autopsy, Saul makes it his mission to give the boy a proper burial.
‘Son of Saul’ is remarkably well made and the camerawork is particularly outstanding at putting us right in Saul’s shoes. The horrors of the concentration camp happen around him, but they’re rarely the focus, and this serves to emphasise how Saul has managed to numb himself to the awful tasks he has to complete and the awful things he witnesses. Saul is a man stripped of his dignity and stripped of his purpose, until he witnesses the young boy’s fate and this leads him on a determined mission to find some meaning in a place without hope. The camera is always with Saul, either up close or from his viewpoint, and we feel each and every moment with him. It’s staggeringly well done and it makes ‘Son of Saul’ an immersive experience, which is both a good and a bad thing. Géza Röhrig’s face is virtually expressionless and he imbues Saul with a kind of unlikely courage, a man who in being pushed to a place of no hope has chosen to fight back in a most humane way. It’s a mesmerising performance and you can’t take your eyes off him throughout the film.
Like any film dealing with concentration camps and the holocaust, there’s an eerie, otherworldly feel to the happenings and it’s still difficult to believe something so horrific actually happened. The success of László Nemes film is in the way it puts you right in the middle of the situation and finds a little moment of hope amidst the horror. ‘Son of Saul’ is a powerful and confident debut feature and I’m intrigued to see what Nemes creates next.
Directed By: László Nemes
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Sándor Zsótér, Todd Charmont, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Kamil Dobrowolski, Jerzy Walczak and Marcin Czarnik