The more time passes between a tragic event and the present undoubtedly changes it’s representation in film. There’s the case of when it’s first appropriate to comment on the event, when enough time has passed to allow an accurate reflection and, eventually, when everything to say on the topic has been said before. We’ve seen this before with the Vietnam War, a tragic crusade that’s resulted in innumerable films on the subject spanning every genre imaginable, from thriller, to drama, to comedy, all of which containing several classics.
The Holocaust is a different subject matter entirely of course, an event that has left such a deep emotional and cultural change it has become the effective go-to tragedy of the modern age. Yet, in an era after triumphs such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and Life is Beautiful; where it’s now being represented in blockbusters, has everything that can possibly be said on the topic already been said? Son of Saul proves otherwise.
Saul Ausländer is a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, the prisoners that were forced to aid in the organisation and cleaning of gas chambers, as well as managing the disposal of its victims. The plot follows Saul’s attempts to find a Rabbi to complete a Jewish burial for his son, a victim of the chamber whom he has smuggled away. As his search becomes increasingly desperate Saul finds himself pulled deeper into a planned rebellion against the SS guards.
The film does as all great historical dramas do: frame the context around a deeply personal story. In the case of Son of Saul this is also taken literally through the filmmaking. In a tight Academy ratio image the camera is persistently locked onto Saul for the majority of the film, with such a shallow depth of field that every flicker over his performance is the centre of attention and the background is reduced to an unintelligible blur. This creative choice alone allows the film to stand out as an exceptional marvel of filmmaking.
Firstly, it highlights the brilliant performance by Géza Röhrig, whose portrayal of Saul is incredibly magnetizing throughout. The viewer is hooked on Saul from beginning to end, and with each subtle variation or quirk of character as he transgresses through the camp this connection only grows. It’s a performance of grit and strength that works to make the character believably human amongst an unbelievably inhuman situation. The focus on Saul does not mean that the film is shying away from the brutal and graphic scenes of the Holocaust though, as throughout the film he faces victims lined up to be gunned down, bodies piled high, and corpses thrown into furnaces. However, through this method they’re conveyed in a respectful and harrowing manner.
Scenes of these awful acts continue in unbroken shots for upwards of five minutes at a time, constantly in the background; we see the flames of the furnaces and the blurred masses of what were once people, but never up close or in focus. The film shows that it isn’t manipulating the imagery of the Holocaust to elicit reactions of the viewer. It knows we’ve seen the photos, the films, and their countless recreations, so many times that our minds can fill in the blanks and, sadly, have almost become accustomed to it. By showing this in such a manner it lets the viewer truly imagine the scenario itself, as well as the sheer scale and confusion of the operation. The sound design comes into full effect here, creating an immersive yet disorientating collection of sounds and voices, sucking the viewer even deeper into the situation. By letting these scenarios continue uncut for such lengthy periods of time it lets the viewer come to terms with the reality of these situations, and creates a much more genuine understanding of the pain and suffering of the victims.
The film is not entirely flawless of course, with the pace early on possibly leading some audiences to find the film slow. The events are also portrayed without much attention given to a timeline, leaving the time between some moments vague and causing some aspects of the plot to become confused. However, that doesn’t stop the film from truly earning its Oscar, as well as showcasing the talent of director László Nemes, who is definitely one to watch. This is a film that will most likely stand the test of time not only as a representation of the Holocaust, but as an understanding of the great human suffering and tragedy.
Son of Saul (2015), directed by László Nemes, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. Certificate 15.