Relatively short by modern standards, there is little you can say about the Hungarian film Son of Saul, other than that watching it is akin to an endurance test not unlike – one imagines – going through hell itself. The war drama by Hungarian director László Nemes, which won this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, is a frequently excruciating experience, yet worth sitting through if only to remind you of the atrocities which countless innocent men, women and children went through during World war II.
Set in the infamous Auschwitz death-camp during the final stages of the war, the film depicts the emotional and physical journey of Saul (Géza Röhrig), one of the men forced to dispose of the bodies of his own countrymen who had been murdered at the hands of the Nazis. After discovering that one of the bodies is that of his own son, Saul is faced with the agonising decision of preserving his own life, or attempting to find his son a dignified resting place.
The filmmakers behind Son of Saul have not held back in their visualisation of the brutalities of the concentration camps and what went on in them under the guise of ethnic cleansing. Opening with scenes set in the infamous ‘showers’ into which thousands of innocents were herded like cattle before being gassed and then having their bodies cremated and the ashes shovelled into the local rivers, the situations these segments depict will haunt you long after the film has ended, much like they did for real with those fortunate enough to survive the atrocities.
The hardest thing to understand – apart from the obvious question as to how anyone with even an ounce of humanity could have subjected fellow human beings to such barbarity – is why Saul himself, once he realises there is nothing he can do for his son, doesn’t try to save himself when several opportunities present themselves. You can only imagine that when placed in a situation such as this, something takes over which makes you loose all sense of reality and rationalism. Nonetheless you will find yourself silently pleading with Saul to save himself when every hope of carrying out his plan seems futile.
The fact that much of the film takes place within the enclosed walls of the basement death chambers, simply adds to its sense of futility, claustrophobia and confinement. When the characters do get outside for any period of time the treatment they face there is in some ways worse, simply re-enforcing the air of despair and horror which permeates every aspect of the film.
There is no point in trying to paint Son of Saul as anything other than harrowing – this is a film which demands to be seen, even though its is an experience you are not likely to enjoy. However, unlike many of those who were subjected for real to the horrors which it depicts, viewers will survive the experience, though it will be impossible to walk away unaffected.
Director: László Nemes
Writers: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Stars: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Recht, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas
Runtime: 107 mins