At one point or another, everyone has cried during a film. A moment unexpectedly overcomes us as it becomes impossible to detach our emotions from the screen. It is, generally speaking, the mark of exceptional dramatic filmmaking. When I took my seat to to watch the Son of Saul, I fully expected this sort of reaction. After all, it captures the experience of a man named Saul Auslander as he is forced to assist Nazis exterminate Jews in Auschwitz, thus delaying his own death for a few months. Reading this description, or any others, one immediately creates a sequence in their mind of what events will unfold, emotions will be experienced, and story will be projected. I ask you to avoid this approach, for when I left the theater, I was still dry-eyed. It was then that I realized how easily first-time Hungarian director László Nemes could have made an overly sentimental picture with moving music and scenarios that tug at our heart strings. By not allowing the audience to experience these types of moments, he has reproduced the complex feeling that so many Holocaust survivors have explained: tears were not enough to express the horror.
Son of Saul is not a typical Holocaust story. As most in the sub genre focus solely on the individual’s fight for survival, here is the depiction of a man whose only goal is to arrange a proper burial for what he believes to be his dead son. We follow Saul on his search for a rabbi through a framing technique that has not yet been effectively utilized in modern-day filmmaking. Right from the first shot, Saul walks up to the camera so that his stoic face fills up the majority of the already narrow frame. From there, the camera keeps Saul in this tight, isolated position for nearly the film’s entire duration, blurring out all surroundings in the concentration camp. Sound, therefore, becomes a major immersive factor for the audience. Although the ambience of Auschwitz consistently creates a chilling and hellish atmosphere, there is one moment in particular that cannot be unheard. Saul stands outside of a gas chamber as he listens to fellows Jews claw, bang, and scream before they suffocate and die. His face remains emotionless, and a few minutes later, he is inside the chamber disposing of the bodies and cleaning up the blood himself. He is used to the routine.
As the camera is directed on Saul’s head throughout the film’s entire duration, the believability of the situations relies almost exclusively on the lead performance by Géza Röhrig. Despite the fact that he had never previously acted in film, I could not imagine him in any other role. He carries the weight of a man that has been drained of all hope and purpose in life, yet in the moments in which Saul pushes closer to burying the child, he conveys a spark that reaffirms that Saul is human after all. It is a subtle juggling act by Röhrig, impressively making us care for a man whose life outside of the camp we know nothing about, and whose words we rarely hear.
When the last shot cut to black, I could not move. I sat there watching the credits and trying to comprehend what I had just witnessed, wondering if I will ever experience similar emotions in a cinema again. In time, Son of Saul will be studied in classes of both film and history. Nemes transforms perhaps the most incomprehensible modern-day atrocity into a work of art that is relentlessly personal yet also thrillingly engaging. As a moviegoer, this film makes me further appreciate thoughtful art. As a human, it makes me further appreciate a comfortable life. It is truly an essential viewing.
Written by Harrison Jeffs