Son of Saul, the Hungarian winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a fiercely uncompromising drama that makes absolutely zero concessions to viewer comfort in the way it relentlessly plunges into the hell of the Holocaust. It might well be a film only a critic could love, but it is nonetheless a vital addition to the must-see-once list. (Other candidates include Cries and Whispers, Amour, Leaving Las Vegas, 12 Years a Slave, Precious, Tyrannosaur, Requiem for a Dream… You get the idea).
Two things make Son of Saul a masterpiece. First, the astonishing central performance by Geza Rohrig as Saul, a prisoner at Auschwitz forced to assist the Nazis in their exterminations. His daily routine consists of herding his fellow Jews into the gas chambers, listening until they stop screaming and banging, clearing the corpses, burning them and dispensing with the ashes. One look at his face tells you this is a man utterly defeated and destroyed; a man for whom anything resembling normal life is but a forgotten dream. However, when a young boy somehow barely survives being gassed, and Saul witnesses him being promptly murdered by a Nazi doctor, he becomes obsessed with the idea of giving this boy a proper, Rabbi assisted burial. He later begins to refer to the boy as his son, even though he clearly isn’t, for reasons that are never explained. However it can be inferred that in this obsession, Saul is desperately reaching out for a glimmer of his former humanity amid the intolerable torment his life has become.
Which brings me to the second brilliant thing about Son of Saul: Laszlo Nemes direction. His technique of spending almost the entire film in front of or behind Saul’s head gives the film an immersive, visceral quality quite unlike any other Holocaust movie to date. As a result, most of the violence occurs offscreen, most of the disturbing imagery is out of focus, and yet because of this restrictive, claustrophobic quality, Nemes has crafted a work of pure cinema. The big screen lends itself brilliantly to two particular kinds of shot: the big wide panorama, of which there are none here, and the intimate close-up, of which the film almost entirely consists.
All things considered, Son of Saul is a necessarily horrible experience, but a brilliantly acted and directed one which once experienced can never be forgotten. When I mentioned this film to someone recently, I was met with a groan of “Not another Holocaust film…” A simple look at headlines of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the appalling situation in the Middle-East tells me that yes, there really can’t be too many Holocaust films. It seems the world needs constant reminders not to slip into the apathy that allowed the Nazis to commit such a monumentally appalling act of genocide.