Mark Reviews Movies

Son of Saul

SON OF SAUL

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: László Nemes

Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Sándor Zsótér, Juli Jakab, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 12/18/15 (limited); 1/29/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 28, 2016

At first, everything is out of focus. We can see the blurry imagery of the edge of a forest and can hear the sounds of a man and a woman in the throes of passion, as two small forms move a bit in front of a tree. A man approaches the camera, and once it arrives in frame, his face becomes the only thing in focus for the remainder of the lengthy, one-take shot.

That face does not give anything away. It does not communicate a single emotion or even thought. It is the face of a man who is going through the motions of an established routine. It does not change as he leads a group of men, women, and children from trucks and train cars, as cheerful music from a phonograph underscores the murmurs of the group. It does not change as a child's cry cracks through the rumbling of the crowd or as a collection of shouted orders punctuate the throbbing pounds of some unseen machinery.

The face does not react to the destination for this crowd of people, as he and others lead the mass into a stone structure where coat hooks are lined across the walls and the pillars. It does not show a single variation as he helps the men and women undress.

Nothing about his visage alters as he guides these people into a large anteroom, as the men who were shouting orders are now saying that hot soup, work, and a good salary await them once they are finished with this shower. "Remember the number of your hook," a man instructs them with the promise that they'll be returning, and still, this man's face does not betray a single thing. As the man begins collecting the clothing that the people left behind, the face is a stone, even when someone calls him over to stand in front of the metal doors, lest the yelling, wailing, and choking people behind the doors try to force their way out of the gas chamber.

That face is the near constant throughout Son of Saul. It is hardened and unchanged by anything and everything that it witnesses. The film does not show us these atrocities in any detail. They occur off-camera or in the background, and with the confined space of the film's aspect ratio and the intensely shallow focus of its cinematography, that means we cannot see them, even if we would want to. What we see is the face, and what we primarily see in it is an absence of any significant reaction or emotion. That would happen, wouldn't it? There would come a point amidst the horrors of the concentration camp that they would become routine—that one would become numb to the screams, the blood, the bodies, the ovens, and the ashes. That thought is horrifying in its own way.

The face belongs to the actor Géza Röhrig, who plays Saul, a Hungarian prisoner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommandos, a unit of prisoners forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoriums of the camp before being executed themselves. Röhrig's performance is one of minor and gradual modulations, and the key to the performance and the character is in that opening scene. The numbness we see within it is a baseline by which we can gage the character's connection to or disconnect from everything that follows.

He moves through the workings of the camp without giving much regard to the barbarities that are around almost every corner. He has seen it all. He has scrubbed the blood and vomit from the floor of the gas chamber. He has helped to pile the bodies—"the pieces," as the guards refer to them. He was walked past the ovens. He has seen the smoke and the ash. It no longer has an effect on him.

Early in the film, though, he witnesses a murder that is far more personal than the others to which he has borne witness. It's not just Röhrig's face that communicates the difference. There's also the way director László Nemes (offering an auspicious first feature) intentionally breaks the film's formal constraints in the depiction of that murder. It's one of the few times over the course of the film when the camera leaves Saul's immediate vicinity. This is a moment that breaks Saul's routine—that genuinely affects him.

For the rest of the film, Saul takes on a singular motivation: to provide this particular victim with a proper Jewish burial. The film's title is perhaps misleading, because there's a distinct probability that Saul had no prior relationship with this victim (When asked for the victim's name, he cannot provide it, and he begins digging through the pockets of abandoned clothing for identifying documents).

He does take on the responsibility of someone who would have had one, and he does so while putting his own life and the lives of others at risk. While the other members of Saul's Sonderkommando unit plan a revolt (The screenplay by Nemes and Clara Royer uses a historical event at the camp as a backdrop), he tries to find and hide the body, to seek out a rabbi who will perform the funeral rites, and to avoid getting killed before the burial can be completed. It is simply an act of basic human decency—perhaps the last thing Saul, who is convinced he and everyone else at the camp will be killed, will ever do—in a place built on the opposite.

Son of Saul is a tremendous accomplishment of form—from Nemes' intricate staging to Mátyás Erdély's oppressive cinematography to Röhrig's performance. That keeps what it's depicting at a distance, even further than Nemes' obvious intentions in doing so. Still, the film remains a unique, harrowing experience.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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