SON OF SAUL [2015]

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Directed by László Nemes

Written by László Nemes, Clara Royer

Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn


Son of Saul was Hungary’s nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar, and it is easy to see why. Films about the holocaust are often labelled Oscar- bait, but this film manages to poke its head out of the pack to present a confronting, intimate look into not only Auschwitz, but into the Sonderkommando, German for ‘special unit’. This name does not at all reflect what this unit’s job was, and is interesting in that it is an example of the way Nazi Germany manipulated language to their advantage.

At the beginning of the movie we see a title card briefly explaining the situation of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz: they are a group of prisoners who run the crematoriums, burning their brethren under the threat of death. They had a small amount of freedom compared to the other prisoners, but were routinely replaced, gassed themselves. This was because Nazi Germany perceived them to have information on how the SS ran the camps, and they didn’t want that knowledge leaking out to normal prisoners.

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The first ten or so minutes of this film was one of the most confronting and immersive scenes I have ever seen. Immediately noticeable is the camera-work; we are locked onto Saul, following him as he goes about the business of a Sonderkommando. Whether the camera is following him and the back of his head, or studying his face closely, we are immediately thrust into Saul’s hectic world. Apart from a few scenes, Saul is on screen all film, with a hand-held camera following him, almost like an unnamed, silent comrade. This opening scene is one long scene with no cuts, and this trend continues with many long takes forming a portrait of Saul. The editing work is near perfect.

Given their job, this is a very intense introduction into Saul’s world, as at one point we see him nonchalantly dragging a dead naked body along the ground by one arm. For this entire sequence there is minimal dialogue, only orders being thrown about, interestingly without subtitles. Saul’s German is weak at best, and the design of the film is obviously to present a day (or two) in his life; therefore, we hear orders yelled in German, only subtitled when entirely necessary. This creates a truly scary experience, such is the authoritative tone of the German language when you barely understand it, working under the threat of death.

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The camera-work used also gives the film a claustrophobic yet intimate nature – we follow Saul for almost the entirety of the film, therefore seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears. To add to this atmosphere of tension and confusion is the use of focus, or rather the lack of it. The film allows us to see what Saul sees, while everything else is often blurred and unrecognisable. Add to this combination a complete lack of a score and great sound-editing, you have yourself quite an experience. You feel like you are in the camp.

Another fascinating aspect is the religious zeal within Saul, often to his own detriment. Because of the small amounts of freedom these men were allowed, he comes across a child who has just died in a truly awful way. He sees the boy as his son and becomes determined to give the child a respectful Jewish burial despite the numerous and obvious roadblocks. Saul conspires with fellow prisoners to have the body of the child hidden, but struggles to find willing participants. This is what drives the admittedly thin narrative, but a film this intense and raw doesn’t need a meaty plot. The action alone says enough, it could almost be seen as a type of horror film, such is the situation these men find themselves in.

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And that situation is poignant and caused a stir at the time. These men are burning the remains of their own kind. The morality behind this is difficult;six beer(1) it is obviously an awful thing to do, but suicide was the only other option. They weren’t randomly shot like other prisoners, they were an important cog of the disgusting Auschwitz system. This is all juicy food for thought after watching this incredible film, remarkably from a first-time director – László Nemes. Géza Röhrig also shines as Saul, using his face to do most of the talking. Considering he hadn’t acted in 25 years, his performance is incredible. Son of Saul is one of the most moving dramas I have ever seen, and given the subject matter, it easily ranks among the best, if not the most horrifying. The ending will also linger long after the credits roll.

This one will be near the top of my best of list for this year, that is for damned sure. A full six-pack for this unique and intense drama!

6/6

NOTE: I highly recommend watching this trailer, to get a sense of the camera-work that this film offers. It is quite something.

Lastly, a rare photo of these men in Auschwitz:

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31 Comments on “SON OF SAUL [2015]

  1. I think this was the Oscar winning foreign feature this year, and I’ve heard it’s really superb and you make it sound that way as well. I guess I should check into it but it seems like its going to be a rough ride .And I’m a pussy.

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    • HAHA! It is quite horrifying and the way it is shot, long cuts with a hand held camera, you are -with- Saul the whole time. Its still in my mind days later, very powerful film. And from a first time director too!

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  2. Nice review Jordan and I agree with just about every word of your review. This is a movie people are going to be taking about for a long time.

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  3. Oh man, I really want to see this but I feel that I must brace myself for the harrowing subject matter.

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  5. Fine review Jordan. I have been waiting to see this film ever since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and your review only gets be more excited to see it. Cant wait

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    • you’ll love it (I hope!). Its so intense and it just puts you right along side this guy as he is shovelling ashes or dragging dead bodies around… its full on

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review 🙂 I have not seen this yet so I can not comment, but regardless If I like it or not when I see it, you wrote a great review as always 🙂 What do I think is either the best film about the Holocaust or one that takes place during that period is a hard question because their have been great ones by celebrated directors all over the world, but If I were to pick one it would be Alain Resnais 1955 documentary Night and Fog. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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    • Thanks mate. Yeah there are a ton to choose from, I’d argue this stands above most others. Not all but goddamn it is brilliant

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  7. I enjoyed your review…though we differ completely on the movie, I did like the long one camera ala Birdman shot.. I guess having had family members in camps who told me so many stories, this rang a bit false for me at points is all. Have you seen Mustang??

    Liked by 1 person

    • To me the extended shots had none of the pompous style that Luzbeki seems to repeat with every movie he makes. Hand-held camera, very different experience. I have not seen Mustang.

      Curious, what stories rang false? Having done quite a bit of research on these ‘special units’ this seems like a pretty apt and horrifying portrayal. But that’s just me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The part where he took the kid and wanted to bury the kid..and went to all these other parts of the camps etc. that would’ve never happened. His own people would have turned him in in fear..or he would’ve been caught at the beginning..a camp person didn’t get to just move around like that without being noticed. The special units part..where they had to help in the removal etc. of their own people..that is true. the other.. no way..

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  10. Great review of an outstanding film. My own review concludes “In terms of cinematography, storytelling and emotional impact, this film is a modern masterpiece” and its the only film I’ve awarded five stars. Drop in for a visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great review, Jordan! This must have been my favourite film I’ve seen in the past year – very hard to watch indeed, but so powerful and well-made (especially the camera-work, as you pointed out!). One of those films that make you feel completely numb after they end (I just went wandering around town for two hours, lost in my own head) and that simply stay with you forever. I hope I gain the courage to see it again someday, but I don’t see this happening for at least a couple of more years… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Veronika 🙂 It is still my favourite film of this year (it was released in Feb down under). I don’t think anything will beat it for some time.

      I watched it twice. Even more powerful the second time round, especially after having read all about the ‘special units’….

      Oh, and regarding the cinematography, check this out, it is an analysis by the director of the first scene, the first long take. It is a must watch video if you liked the movie:

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