Title: Son Of Saul
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Major Players: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn
Out Of Five: 5
Son Of Saul director Laszlo Nemes is 39. But he looks no more than his early 20s, like he’s just left college, certainly not old enough to direct a film that’s won him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes, a Spirit Award and more. Yet he’s gathered that haul for his very first feature film, one that any director would be more than proud to make at the peak of their career.
It’s a work of outstanding maturity that takes us on a journey through the human hell of a German concentration camp during World War II. Our guide is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Special Squad (Sonderkommando), Jewish but living and working inside the camp’s death factories. It’s a way of survival – you can’t call it life – that’s almost desensitised him, but there’s still a spark of humanity buried deep inside. When he witnesses a teenage boy being killed by a Nazi officer, he wants to make sure he has a proper, Jewish burial, even if it means putting his own life at risk and those of the rest of the Special Squad.
The film never spells out that it’s set in Auschwitz, but it is. And it never explains that it’s set towards the end of World War II, but it is: as it became increasingly apparent that the war wasn’t going their way, the Nazis put their accelerator on their chillingly named Final Solution. So trains packed with people arrive regularly at the camp every single day, each truck starting its own horrific cycle of death.
Saul and the members of the Special Squad live separately from the rest of the camp, have better conditions and better food, but the price they pay for them makes your hair stand on end. They help the new arrivals to undress, usher them into the “showers” and, to the thunder of panic and screams from inside the chamber, collect the clothes and valuables and get to keep some of them for themselves. They clean up the chamber afterwards, they burn the bodies and dispose of the ashes. But, despite their privileged position in the camp, the Nazi officers regard them with as much contempt as the other inmates, there to be beaten, threatened, humiliated and maltreated.
It’s an exhausting, draining journey through a never-ending nightmare. And the way Nemes navigates it is masterly. The camera mostly follows Saul from behind, so that he, and anybody else who comes close to him, is in focus but everything and everybody else is blurred. But not so blurred that we can’t tell what’s going on. That people are being shot, that they’re totally naked as they’re ushered into the gas chamber, that the mounds behind Saul are actually piles of corpses. The multitude of sounds surrounding him tell the story as well, often a babel of voices and languages, screams and shouts, beatings, sometimes all of them at the same time. A cacophony of the damned. Conversely, there’s comparatively little dialogue. The expression on Saul’s face and what we see on screen means that it’s partly redundant, and what words there are come in short, staccato phrases. It’s as if the prisoners are so numb that they’ve forgotten how to communicate or simply no longer have the energy. Everything they do is about keeping alive, keeping the mind and body on the right side of survival.
“We’ll die because of you,” one of his colleagues says. “We’re all dead anyway,” is Saul’s answer, even though he still has enough humanity inside not to be able to look any of the new arrivals in the eye as he helps them undress before ushering them into the “showers”. Rohrig’s performance is spellbinding, an expressionless face and near-dead eyes that speak volumes for the horrors he’s witnessed.
The title can be taken two ways. Saul himself is a son of Saul in that he’s Jewish, just like most of the others in the camp. But then there’s the boy he tries to save, as well as redeeming himself, by giving him a proper Jewish burial. Is he Saul’s real son? It’s unlikely, but in Saul’s mind he is – and that’s what matters. Because what he’s showing him is the love and devotion of a father, and it’s all in the context of a not just a film but more of an immersive experience.
Son Of Saul is released in cinemas and online on Friday, 29 April and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 April.