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Review: Son of Saul

December 26, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Son of Saul PosterThrough brilliant cinematography and sound, first time director Laszlo Nemes depicts the unspeakable cruelty of the concentration camps in almost uncompromisingly bleak detail in Son of Saul, a gripping and harrowing drama that is also one of the year’s best.

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a prisoner at Auschwitz, who has been spared his life for a few more months, in exchange for being forced to betray his own people by helping the guards move them into gas chambers and clean up their remains afterwards.

He has forced himself to become numb to the atrocities around him, moving almost like a zombie as he robotically completes whatever cruel tasks are ordered of him.  But when he finds the body of a young boy, whom he believes to be his son, Saul becomes determined to find a rabbi and protect the boy’s remains, at least long enough to give him a traditional Jewish burial.

The film is often exhausting to watch for the way it forces us to look upon acts of pure evil, but is also vital viewing for these exact same reasons.  And from a purely technical standpoint, Son of Saul is surely one of the most accomplished and stunning filmmaking debuts in quite some time.  For the most part, the film unfolds through unbroken long takes, often framed over the shoulder of the title character, as if we are literally following him through the concentration camp.

This allows us to see everything from his point of view, often keeping the piles of bodies and other horrors to the side of the frame, so that what we don’t see is able to invade our imaginations in even worse ways.  The largely handheld 35mm camerawork adds a sense of chaos and claustrophobia to the proceedings, with the closed in square aspect ratio and very shallow depth of field thrusting us right into the harrowing story.  The sound design is equally all encompassing, from the inescapable screams of death that surround us in the background, to the equally haunting silences that follow.

Appearing in pretty much every scene, and seeming almost numb to the terrors that surround him, Géza Röhrig anchors these images with a mesmerizing performance.  This is an emotionally draining film that shockingly recreates the horrors of the Holocaust, built around a heartbreaking story of one man’s quest to complete an act of human decency, amidst one of the most atrocious events in history.

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