Son of Saul – LFF Review

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Géza Röhrig as Saul

Géza Röhrig as Saul

You never walk into a film cold.  You always carry something with you.  These days, with them interwebs, it is even harder not too.  Trailers tell every bit of a film, the days of mystery are gone.  Yet, when you walk into a film about the Holocaust, no matter what the film’s pedigree, there is a sense of foreboding.  When you are walking into a Cannes Grand Prix winner and your fellow festival goers troop in with buckets of popcorn, frankly, I thought I was in the wrong cinema.  I’d opted for a beer, which, as it turns out, was not strong enough.

Films about the Holocaust usually suffer from the same issue; how do you depict the greatest depravity of modern human times?  Spielberg tried and ended up, as is his want, over sentimentalising his attempt in Schindler’s List.  As hailed a film as Schindler’s List is, it is rather clean and resorts all too often to the stereotypical Nazi he’s used before to make it’s point.  Life is Beautiful resorted to comedy and Jerry Lewis resorted to clowns.  With Son of Saul we have a film set in the black heart of Auschwitz itself, where you see, virtually nothing.  The film opens to a black tile screen and silence.  In my screening the only sound was munching of popcorn.  But then comes the noise.  We open on Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando, herding his fellow Jews towards “a shower and soup, before work.”  The film opens with the camera in the position it will for the rest of the film, a close shot of Saul, the “action” out of focus behind him.  But, we hear it all.  The babel of voices, of languages, from all over Europe, shuffling towards their end, becomes our soundtrack for what we, only just, cannot really see.  The answer to how do you show the impossible is that you don’t, you glimpse it and you let the audience hear it.  The viewer is left to pull focus and reveal the horror for themselves.  It is a trick as old as cinema itself and it is wonderfully effective.  We move with Saul as the newcomers are stripped and pushed into the “showers”.  All the while, the shouting of orders, the murmuring of the newcomers are coupled to fragmented sub-titles.  The door is slammed shut, German orders are heard,  Saul and his Kommando fall into position and then the screaming begins.  All the while, we are looking at Saul’s impassive face.  Orders are issued to empty the pockets of those no longer in need of pockets.  All the while, we listen to the sounds from beyond the door.  The sound design of Son of Saul is truly astounding.  We hear everything, it is unrelenting and inescapable.  Slowly, the sounds from beyond the door quieten and the Kommando is ordered back to the door, they cover their noses and mouths and start to clear out “The Pieces”.  From  the moment the cattle trucks arrive, ounce by ounce, the victims are dehumanised to the point where their corpses are nothing more than a piece of rubbish to be removed and, upstairs, incinerated.  The Kommando set to work, clearing the bodies, disinfecting and, amazingly, repainting the gas chamber, so that it is in pristine condition for the next group.  What happens next is the turning point of the film, Saul identifies a Boy as his own son and thus begins a odyssey through the camp showing us, in glimpses, the hell of the Death Camp.  From the ordered, industrialised murder of the gas chambers and crematoria with its shift workers, to the chaos of the pits, all the while looking for a Rabbi to offer the boy a proper burial.  Throughout, the film doesn’t break its rules, keeping the framing in a way that we are Saul and his quest is ours.  The boy can been seen as the Sonderkommando, doomed to its fate or just Saul finding a last moment of humanity within his soul that had been stripped piece by piece.

Frankly, that summary does not do one jot of justice to what is a majestic, harrowing work of art.  For a feature début, László Nemes has crafted a truly remarkable and affecting film.  The LFF screening was digitally projected, for which Nemes apologised.  Son of Saul was shot on 35mm film and is the director’s preferred presentation of his film.  He said that the digital projection is colder, which is remarkable, as the switching between saturation and vivid primary colours in certain scenes, means the 35mm version will be incredible.  The effect that Son of Saul had on me was such that, as I walked out of the screen, post the Q&A with Nemes, I was still physically shaking.  This film, along with German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, should be shown in schools.   Son of Saul is one of those rare films, a true original that takes risks that work and leaves you utterly devastated.  László Nemes has created an incredible tribute to the victims, told from the viewpoint of a collaborator.  His cast and crew should be equally proud of this achievement.  Whatever Nemes has lined up next, I cannot wait to see it and will be first in the queue to see Son of Saul again in April when it is released in the UK.  A 35mm screening, of course.

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