I went into this film with some trepidation even with the almost universal praise it received. At a certain point, I’ll admit, I just started to feel like I never really wanted to see another Holocaust movie. And I even started to think that maybe everything that really needed to be said had been said and all new movies would only repeat in significantly watered down fashion what a lot of the real masterpieces had already said.
Well, I was wrong. Son of Saul is a Holocaust movie you’ve never seen before. I don’t even know really how to start talking about it. Saul is the main character, the character that we never leave in this film; he’s what is called a sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner given certain luxuries, in exchange for working for the Germans, doing the duties that the German soldiers won’t do: scrubbing the floors of the gas chambers, moving the bodies to the ovens, shoveling the ashes into a lake, etc. The film takes place at Auschwitz and it has a simple hook. Saul sees a young boy come through the gas chamber and for reasons that remain ambiguous, he decides that he wants to see the boy receive the traditional Jewish death rites. But his efforts may endanger a planned escape attempt by some of his fellow prisoners. As the film unfolds, it refuses to tell you what to think about Saul’s efforts. Is this a fool’s errand, undertaken for entirely selfish reasons? Or is it a noble effort to reclaim the spiritual in a place where it has been completely destroyed?
But the film is less about that story and more about placing you right there in the chaos and extreme atmosphere of the death camp and it does it brilliantly. It is, in many ways, rather like a behind the scenes documentary; it shows you the down and dirty details of what actually had to go on to keep those ovens burning 24 hours a day. To say it’s harrowing is to significantly undersell it. The film is shot in a square format, with incredibly shaky hand-held camera work and in incredibly long takes. There’s no music and the performances are incredibly minimal. The film is shot in shallow focus a lot of the time with only Saul being in sharp focus and everything going on behind him out of focus, which allows the film to show us some astonishing atrocities out of focus, in the back of the shot; it’s a nightmarish way to get across the point that this is the world these men live in every day; these things are not shocking to them anymore. Geza Rohrig, an non-professional making his feature film debut, is nothing short of brilliant as Saul, a man bearing a great weight on his body and on his soul. And the director is making his feature film debut, which is kind of amazing given just how strikingly unique the film’s direction is.
Perhaps the strongest praise I can give the movie is also the strongest warning: it feels like a documentary. In the film’s nearly two hour running time, there were certainly moments where I was so overwhelmed by the nightmarish experience of the movie that I almost left the theater. The second time that happened is the real centerpiece of the film, a nightmarish, incredibly long take of the camp coming to chaotic life in the middle of the night when a train bearing a thousand prisoners arrives without warning and with the news that two-thousand more will be arriving before the night is out. It’s a chaotic, incredibly loud, disorienting sequence as the camera tries to follow Saul through the maelstrom. I really can’t even begin to tell you how intense this sequence is; it makes the Normandy sequence from Saving Private Ryan feel like a drawing room conversation scene. I try not to leave the theater; I feel like I’ve made a bit of an artistic compact with the filmmaker to see what he or she has chosen to put in front of me and I happened to be right in the middle of a long row with people blocking me on either side. But I ended up doing something I also try very hard not to do which was look away. At some point in the sequence, I just sort of bowed my head and gritting my teeth, trying very hard to keep from making noises of distress. It’s a film I’m glad I saw in a theater because it certainly helped with the extreme immersion the filmmaker was going for. But I can see how it might be too intense for some. It’s not a film you’re going to enjoy; it’s a film that is going to haunt you for several hours, if not days; it’s a film you still have to see. As a sheer visceral experience, it surpassed every film I saw in the theater so far this year or last, including The Revenant and White God. It’s perhaps the greatest fictional film made about the Holocaust. And the questions it raises still matter: in a place and time when life itself has no worth, what price a single soul? 4 stars.
tl;dr – a visceral experience of overwhelming intensity, this is a Holocaust film you’ve never seen before; in a genre often clichéd, this masterpiece brings new, gripping things to the table. 4 stars.