Son of Saul (2015)
dir. Laszlo Nemes
written by: Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer
starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
3.75 out of 4 stars
Eastern European cinema, you are so challenging yet rewarding.
Son of Saul, the Hungarian Holocaust drama about an Auschwitz prisoner forced to herd other prisoners to their doom who attempts to salvage the body of a boy he believes to be his son, is a tragic, intense film both momentously personal and unnervingly aloof. Director László Nemes, along with co-writer Clara Royer, delved into humans’ willingness to obey and their fight to survive. Stalking Saul (a stone faced knockout debut from Géza Röhrig), either always over his shoulder or placed in his line of vision, the film portrays a man who has abandoned all sense of self and personal meaning until he discovers a purpose worth risking himself and all of those around him in order to handle the atrocities surrounding him.
First, one must mention the manner with which the movie is shot. Confounding at first, the movie appears to be too close in on this captive man. The frame barely releases its focus from Saul despite the massacre surrounding the man. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely, no stranger to difficult subject matter with films such as Miss Bala and this year’s James White, exacerbates psychological terror by not focusing on it. Genocide is occurring in the background, but a man seeking a rabbi is the focus; this is the story of a man, part of a people, embracing his heritage while losing his culture all around him. He has shoveled the remains of his flock after leading them to their doom. Unsettling, hard to watch, but masterful.
Rohrig, taking the reigns with absolutely no control over his outcome, is ushered and pushed by inmates and guards alike. With minimal dialogue and nearly no previous experience, Geza’s face is captivating and tragic. Sharp jawed, catching shadows on grizzled skin, his story is told through his expressions, minimal as they may be, and his silence which stands for long interludes. He is immediate; he is precise; he is powerfully devastating.
With this audacious debut, László Nemes delivers power unlike those with far deeper experience. Brutal and violent, his landscape is horrific. Shovels diving in dirt, echoes of the impending end always nearby, creep below one’s skin. The oppressive sound created with Tamás Zányi elevates the unease: horrified screams, pounding, gunshots, overwhelming noise. Nemes creates an experience so uncomfortable and heartbreaking to watch, it feels more realistic than one would hope to experience for a Holocaust pictures. With the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of this fever dream of a movie, a constricting size reminiscent of the Xavier Dolan’s troubling Mommy, a claustrophobic nightmare awaits the viewer. Horror has not been more terrifying than Son of Saul’s history.