ReelBob: ‘Son of Saul’
By Bob Bloom
You cannot look away while watching “Son of Saul.”
While the camera focuses on the main protagonist in the foreground, it is what you observe in the background that is most disturbing and upsetting.
“Son of Saul” is a grim Holocaust drama about a concentration- camp inmate tasked with helping prepare Jews for the gas chambers then disposing of their bodies afterward.
The film is shot as if you were sitting on the Devil’s shoulder while touring Hell.
Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a Sonderkommando working at the Auschwitz crematoriums. He has become numb to the death and horror around him, simply going about his daily tasks in order to survive for another day. He knows that the Nazis can liquidate him and other Sonderkommandos at any time.
All that changes when he sees the body of a boy removed from the gas chamber and, instead of sending the corpse to the crematorium, he wants to give it a proper burial.
Saul believes the boy is his son, and he begins a desperate search for a rabbi among the inmates, so he can give the body a proper burial.
The plot is secondary to the method writer-director Laszlo Nemes chose to tell his story.
The film is told from Saul’s point of view: What he sees, we see.
And that means, during many instances, the horrors and atrocities of the death camp is relegated to the background. More importantly, though, Nemes does not allow that to diminish its appalling impact nor the suffering of the inmates and new arrivals.
Many Holocaust movies present Sonderkommandos as villains and collaborators. Nemes takes a more humane view, showing that these men — and women — are just as much victims as the other doomed souls.
And Rohrig’s performance complements his director’s vision. Saul seems to have removed himself mentally from the death and destruction around him, while immersed in it physically.
“Son of Saul” makes a full-frontal assault on your senses. Not only do you have to pay close attention to what is happening in the background, but you have to attune your ears to hear the constant rumbling on the soundtrack.
And while you never see them, you know the sound is the furnaces reducing human bodies into ashes. Yet, not viewing the process does not lessen your abject disgust.
“Saul” is not an easy movie to view nor digest. It stirs so many emotions that you can’t decide whether to cry or cover your eyes.
While “Schindler’s List” may be considered the template against which other Holocaust movies are measured, “Son of Saul” is so more harrowing and brutal than Steven Spielberg’s movie simply because it is so casual about the inhumanity that most of the world ignored until it was too late.
“Son of Saul” is a movie that should — no, make that must — be seen to gain a further appreciation of how barbaric humanity can sink.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
SON OF SAUL
4 stars out of 4
(R), graphic violence, disturbing images, nudity, language