It’s easy to say that Son of Saul is a film from which I will never be able to recover. This isn’t saying it’s a bad movie: actually it’s the extreme opposite. Son of Saul is probably the best and most definitive film about the Holocaust ever made, almost immersing you in the events of one Hungarian Jewish man’s life as he carries out unspeakable acts for the Nazis in order to stay alive. This film will take a piece of your cinematic soul and you’ll never forget it.
The film almost perches you on the shoulder of Saul Ausländer, a prisoner working in Auschwitz as a Sonderkommando: a group who was forced to aid in the disposal of bodies from the gas chambers. In the horrific but amazing ten minute continuous shot, Saul and his fellow prisoners herd all the newly arriving prisoners off a train and into a building where they are forced to undress and head into the shower area. They are then locked in as the rest of the Sonderkommando holds the door shut. After a thirty second beat of the sounds of screaming and scratching and pounding on the metal door we see our title card for the film.
With this opening, you feel the grip of the film around your heart and the stark shock resting on your face. Yes, we knew these abominable atrocities happened, as we read books, watched other films and learned about it in school but Son of Saul makes these horrors real and never for an exploitative reason.
The real push of Saul’s story comes with the discovery of a boy, still alive after the aforementioned gas chamber. Immediately, he addresses this boy as his son, although we’re unsure if this is the truth or something he has formed in his mind from the trauma of his situation.
Saving the body from being burned and hiding it from the majority of his Sonderkommando comrades, Saul desperately seeks a rabbi to arrange a proper Jewish burial for the boy as the rest of his group plan an uprising and escape from the camp.
The most incredible thing about this film is the filmmaker’s ability to show the horror of Saul’s world around him in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative by keeping almost everything in his peripheral vision out of focus. Yes, we can see a blurry pink mound in the corner of our picture but we know what it is without having to look directly at it.
Although it’s a film that I not only don’t want to see again but physically can’t watch again, Son of Saul is a must see film as a part of history we never can and never should forget. It is the most gut punching and visceral depiction of the monstrosity of a group of humans that so undervalued the lives of millions and destroyed them without a single thought. This film may be one of the most important pieces of cinema ever made just for these reasons alone.
As we head into award season, I expect Son of Saul to be a front runner for a cascade of accolades, yet at Cannes Film Festival it was the runner up to the film Dheepan. I missed this one at the festival, but it would have to be a cinematic feat to be recognized over this crushing Hungarian film, incredibly, the first full length feature from director László Nemes. It’s without hesitation I give Son of Saul a perfect five out of five and urge you to see this film as soon as possible.