It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen Son of Saul, the much lauded feature film debut by director László Nemes, and I’m still having a difficult time writing this review. And believe me, I’ve been trying. My main difficulty lies in the fact that the film is unsettling on many, many levels but it’s undeniably a “must see” film. However everytime I want to anoint it a truly “great” film something inside of me gives a little hiccup and back to the drawing board I go. Sigh. It’s hard being a film critic.
For the uninformed, Son of Saul tells the tale of Saul (Géza Röhrig) a concentration camp victim who has been granted a stay of execution for his help in cleaning up the mass murders carried out by the Nazi’s at one of Auschwitz’s crematoriums. This is indeed as horrible as it sounds and I frankly would prefer just being gassed or shot dead if I were in Saul’s shoes. His days consist of waking up in prison, being given barely a scrap of bread of breakfast and then going out and helping herd fellow Jews into gas chambers. While innocents die in the gas chambers Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando’s (the name given to the Jews who worked the death camps) gather up their clothes while searching the pockets for valuables. Then, they drag the corpses from the gas chambers, help stack and burn them and then shove the scorched corpses into mass graves. By now you’re likely thinking how exploitative this all sounds but ah, ah, ah….not so fast.
See, Son of Saul (and by proxy, Nemes) have skirted the exploitation situation by keeping the camera tight as can be on the face of Saul and their lens choice thus blurs out everything going on around the character. In the background of the close-up on Saul we see blurry crowds being shuffled into gas chambers and hear their screams and then we see Saul and his Sonderkommando’s dragging blurred objects across the floor and stacking them into blurry piles. It’s an old trick from horror films to show just enough of what is going on to let audiences fill in the rest and with Son of Saul this trick is incredibly affecting. But the big question remains: and…?
Everyone except for whacko Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites recognize that the Holocaust was bad. Really bad. And I don’t mean to make light of it even here but my “really bad” comments seem to be kind of what Nemes is getting at. There’s really no other point of view and what becomes engaging about other Holocaust films are the people we see onscreen, fighting to survive. Be they Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993), Guido as played by Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful (1997) or any number of survivors in Claude Lanzman’s truly must-see documentary Shoah (1985) everyone knows the Holocaust was unthinkable but it happened and humanizing it through cinema (or art, or literature) help us grasp this tragedy. Plus these are all heroes journey type stories where a normal human being is pushed to incredible lengths to become something bigger than themselves. But Nemes and Son of Saul also kind of twists that as Röhrig’s Saul is so fried from his experience, he’s basically a dead man walking. There’s no “there” there, literally. Saul is a blank slate, free from expression or feeling.
Early in the film as he’s cleaning up bodies Saul finds a boy who has somehow barely survived the gas chamber. Saul suddenly proclaims that this boy is his son and after the child is unceremoniously snuffed out by a doctor, Saul takes it upon himself to find a Rabbi to properly bury the boy. If it seems like I may have skipped something there plotwise, I didn’t. It happens just like that. Saul (who I frankly often wondered if he was suffering from head trauma or, as the PC police might say, a “cognitive disability”) just decides this kid is his son and must have a proper burial no matter what stands in his way. While proponents of the film might answer the question of whether or not the child is really his son with a “it doesn’t matter!” I feel it most definitely does matter because Son of Saul is not a film dealing in subtext or allegory. In fact my big issue with the film and why I can’t get in the “masterpiece” boat is because it’s devoid of any point of view other than the obvious (The Holocaust was bad).
Look, I can go on and on about Son of Saul and by doing so alone, I doubt I’ll come to a resolution. Smarter people then me on smarter sites than ours are disagreeing within the same issue so I guess the bottom line is, Son of Saul is a brilliant film that needs to be seen and discussed. I also feel that the sensitive arena of “The Holocaust” makes it a difficult subject to not only discuss but to take issue with any art that dares take a deep look at it. But even Jerry Lewis knew not all Holocaust films need to happen and I still wonder if Son of Saul is as good as buzz indicates or just a well done art film with a difficult subject matter that forces viewers to reckon with it.
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