When I first heard about Son Of Saul I have to admit that I made some flippant jokes about being oblivious to any cinematic Better Call Saul spin-off. I had no idea what this movie was about, only starting to take more notice of it as praise for it continued to grow and grow (yep, as usual, late to the party). So I bought the Bluray and decided to give it some of my time.
Let me warn you from the very beginning, Son Of Saul is a film that could potentially ruin your whole day. There’s no way around that. It’s about as bleak as they come, yet director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer, tries to do what he can to make things bearable for viewers.
Géza Röhrig plays Saul, a Hungarian POW in WWII who is one of the many selected to actually work to keep the Holocaust machinery moving. They are there to watch other prisoners being herded up. They help them get ready to enter “the showers”. And they then go in to clean up the aftermath; moving bodies, scrubbing down the area, sorting through clothing for anything of value. These workers know that one day their own time will come, but delaying death gives them time to plan for either some kind of escape or way to expose the atrocities. But all of that goes to the back of Saul’s mind when he discovers the body of a boy that he wants to ensure receives a proper burial. Why? Well, I refer you to the actual title of the film.
Although there are many other people in the cast, and all of them do good work, it’s hard to think of anyone onscreen other than Röhrig, who gives a lead performance as good as any I can think of in recent years. The camera focuses on him, staying close, and in turn allows viewers to glimpse only a small, often blurry, selection of horrifying details around him. Corpses are moved around and placed in piles, ready to be incinerated. Anyone causing too much trouble is simply executed. People are worked to breaking point and beyond, shovelling piles and piles of ash to be disposed of in a river. And Saul keeps moving through this, sometimes showing emotion on his face but largely trying to remain undistracted as he considers how to make arrangements for the burial of one small boy.
Nemes, and Royer, instinctively know that the human mind can barely comprehend the true extent of the horrors of the Holocaust. Not only do they keep the core of the story a small, and personal one (although there’s also a subsequent story strand about a planned escape/fight back), but they only show a fraction of what could have been shown. For the same reason that any film about the potential end of the Earth needs one or two individuals for viewers to latch on to. The bigger the numbers become, the harder it is to feel the impact of death. The harder it is to process. It’s why we all watched entire cities destroyed in Independence Day with a sense of awe and then clenched the sides of our chairs when a dog was endangered by a tunnel-filling fireball.
Yes, this may be the only review of Son Of Saul that also cites Independence Day, but that also reiterates my point. We all have different reference points, different comparisons we can make, and different ways of dealing with the horrors of the world, whether historic or in the here and now. Nemes uses the central father and son storyline to give viewers easier access to roads that explore some interesting ideas, some startlingly simple and a few of them quite complex. By making things a bit smaller, including the frame itself, he actually widens the possibilities of what each viewer can take away from the experience.
DIRECTOR: LÁSZLÓ NEMES
WRITER: CLARA ROYER, LÁSZLÓ NEMES
STARS: GÉZA RÖHRIG
RUNTIME: 107 MINS APPROX