Sunday, February 7, 2016

Son of Saul

Saul fia; war drama, Hungary, 2015; D: László Nemes, S: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn

A Nazi concentration death camp, World War II. Saul is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner working as a Sonderkommando member, i.e. a person who cleans up after the killing of the Jews. One day, among the hundreds of dead in a gas chamber, he finds a boy who is still alive, but dies shortly afterwards. Saul tries to convince the doctor not to perform an autopsy, claiming the boy is his son, and that he wants a Rabbi to properly bury him. Saul's friend, Abraham, tries to convince him to start an uprising, since he claims that they might be next in the line of death. After the uprising, a dozen people run away, among them Saul with the corpse of the boy, but he loses it in the river. The Nazi soldiers find and kill them in the forest.

The feature length debut film by director Laszlo Nemes, "Son of Saul" is a quality and ambitious Holocaust piece, yet very tough and depressive film to sit through. Nemes chooses long takes, with the camera following the protagonist Saul behind his back, and presenting the events only from his perspective, never from an objective point-of-view with a wider oversight: this is already evident in the expressionistic opening 10-minute shot filmed in one take, where the camera walks after Saul who gathers the inmates, walks with them into the concentration camp and then holds the door shut after them, hearing their screams as they die in the gas chamber, in a horrifying scene. After he cleans up the blood in the chamber, the camera keeps the background out of focus, even though there is unmistakably a mountain of naked corpses in the room. The second most shocking scene is in the second half, where the Nazi soldiers just round up the prisoners as they show up in the forest, and shoot them on spot over a giant mass grave, in a lingering, articulated vision of Totalitarian hell. It seems Nemes also inverts the film rule in which a protagonist "has to have a goal in the story" by having Saul trying to bury a dead boy, which is a futile goal in itself. "Son of Saul" is a strong film, but a Pyrrhic victory: it did everything right, and yet, it lacks some true ingenuity, freshness and a spirit, since the theme has already been covered in numerous previous films before, whereas this story does not add anything new to it, feeling thus slightly exhausted towards the end.


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