Directed by László Nemes
It wasn’t by chance that “Son of Saul”, a brooding drama set in Auschwitz in 1944, won the Gand Prix at Cannes and was considered the best foreign language film both in the 88th Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Skillfully, the debutant Hungarian director, László Nemes, who co-wrote with Clara Royer, conjures up a great story taken from an exhausted topic, imbuing it with a disconcerting vision, an adroit narrative articulation, and a fresh approach that automatically confers him the title of very distinctive.
The story, showcasing a relentless psychological strength and a feverish search for humaneness in times of insult and negligence of human values, focuses on Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew who works at the most famous Nazi extermination camp as a Sonderkommando member. The ones who belong to this group, also known as “bearers of secrets”, were in charge of conducting their fellow Jews to the gas chambers, cleaning the nauseating mess afterwards, and ultimately burning the dead bodies.
One day, Saul decides to bury the body of a young boy who, miraculously, was still breathing when he was taken out of the gas chamber. Inevitably, the boy succumbs, but from that moment on, Saul takes him as his own son. A burial procedure is not allowed under any circumstances, and the obsessed Saul, well identified by the big red X on the back of his coat, will need the cooperation of a few mates as well as of the doctor who should proceed with the autopsy, to carry on with his intent. He also needs to guarantee the presence of a rabbi to make sure the proper words will be said.
By approaching the convenient persons, one by one, Saul fiercely sticks to this noble idea, searching for some dignity in a place where there’s no dignity at all. He seems impelled by a superior force he cannot control, exposing himself to a few perilous situations as he conveys all the personal victories and frustrations to the viewer. This could be achieved thanks to Mr. Röhrig’s outstanding performance, an asset to the extraordinary direction of Mr. Nemes, who draws an afflictive, inebriating effect from the agitated yet well-planned handheld camera. His filmmaking style – the film was shot at a close range from the subject, with the camera often placed behind his back - makes us see everything through the eyes of a man who can’t be stopped no more, even knowing that death is his most probable destiny.
“Son of Saul” is an uncomfortable drama, built in an almost delirious way. It’s not an easy watch, especially when you start to believe that it’s going to take you somewhere righteous, and minutes later you realize that darkness will take over and win the battle. I wasn’t expecting anything cheerful, and still its inconsolable paths struck me as a lightning bolt.
It’s a golden debut for Mr. Nemes, who engendered a new visual and narrative perspective to sturdily relaunch the Holocaust theme. One thing I can assure you: this film is like nothing you have seen before.