Son of Saul (2015)


It is 23 years since the multi-award winning Schindler’s List (1993) appeared, a critically acclaimed film that is indelibly etched into the memories of millions. The emotional defences of today’s audiences are more difficult to penetrate because of the range and intensity of demands upon their finite storage and response capacity. But Son of Saul (2015) does more than penetrate our defences. It takes you by the throat and drags you into a world of unspeakable horror, forcing you to stand just inches from Dante’s Inferno but with the spectacle out of focus or just out of frame. It’s a filming technique that forces the viewer to fill in the detail whether they want to or not. When it comes to Holocaust atrocities, the unseeable is more terrifying.

The story of Saul is painfully simple: he is a Hungarian Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of a group of wardens who herd other prisoners to the chambers then remove their incinerated remains. In return, they receive extra food, a few more weeks of life, and unimaginable shame. Against the out-of-focus images of furnaces and corpses Saul finds a boy who briefly survives gassing and he becomes obsessed with finding a Rabbi to perform a dignified burial for the body he calls son. But Saul never had a son and his quixotic quest is both an act of madness and a tragic morality play. Against a frenzied, claustrophobic background of horrific screams, gunshots, smoke and body parts, whispers of a planned escape by other prisoners serve only to signal that even in this hell human beings retained hope of survival no matter how futile. In no other film have I experienced such raw visceral power of sound and silence, orchestrated with such brutal force to numb the senses and leave you drained.

In terms of cinematography, storytelling and emotional impact, this film is a modern masterpiece.  But it is hardly entertainment. It leaves you nowhere to hide, shows no mercy, spares no detail. It uses the camera with extraordinary surgical precision, lingering on pained faces, shifting to a wafer-thin depth of field to isolate Saul from hell, then darting frenetically from face to face in search of humanity. Only one smile appears in all of this film and it rapidly vanishes as the delusion of a madman. Why see such a film? Answers will vary of course. For some, it is about respect for filmmaking at the highest level. For others, it is about the imperative of not forgetting humanity’s potential for evil. One thing is certain: the shelf life of this film will be measured in decades.


Director: Laszlo Nemes

Stars: Geza Rohrig, Levente Moinar, Urs Rechn