Directed by: László Nemes.
Written by: László Nemes & Clara Royer.
Starring: Géza Röhrig (Saul Ausländer), Levente Molnár (Abraham Warszawski), Urs Rechn (Oberkapo Biederman), Jerzy Walczak (Rabbi Frankel), Sándor Zsótér (Dr. Miklos Nyiszli), Marcin Czarnik (Feigenbaum), Kamil Dobrowolski (Mietek), Uwe Lauer (Oberscharführer Voss), Christian Harting (Oberscharführer Busch), Mihály Kormos (Schlojme), Márton Ágh (Apikoyres - Greek Rabbi), Amitai Kedar (Hirsch - Gold Collector), István Pion (Katz), Juli Jakab (Ella).
How many Holocaust movies have we seen over the years? Personally, I have probably seen a few hundred – some of them being masterpieces (Schindler’s List, Shoah among others) and some of them being absolute embarassments (The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas) – and most of them somewhere in between. I had started to believe that no matter how good some recent Holocaust movies have been, that I wasn’t going to see anything new or different in these films. Most have settled into being inspirational – concentrating not on the victims, but on the survivors, who refuse to be broken no matter what they are put through. But Laszlo Nemes’ stunning debut film Son of Saul really does add something new, and different to the genre of Holocaust films. This is one of the bleakest films about the Holocaust ever made – and one of the best.
The film stars Geza Rohrig as Saul Auslander, an Hungarian Jew working in the Sonderkommandos in Auswitz – basically his job is to help get new arrivals into the showers in a calm and reasonable fashion, and then clean up after the mass deaths. No one does this job for very long – and its easy to see why – its soul crushing work, and doing it for just a few months has sent Saul over the edge, into insanity. Early in the film, a young boy actually survives the showers – and although he is quickly killed by the Germans afterwards, Saul becomes convinced that he needs to give this boy – who he says is his on – a proper burial. Throughout the film he will search for Rabbi, and a way to give this one boy that burial – something he has convinced himself will redeem himself for all his sins. It is an insane plan – and he puts others at risk to do it, even being accused at one point of betraying the living for the dead (which is true) – but Saul response is equally true – that theyre all dead already.
That is what makes Rohrig's performance so brilliant –he plays Saul as a man who sees himself as already dead – he betrays little emotion, and even though he is clearly going insane, its more of a low implosion – which he does subtlely, instead of an explosion of extroverted insanity. The wonderfully cinematography is mainly done handheld (not in a shaky, nausea inducing way), which remains fixated on Sauls face throughout the film – the background is often blurred, focused just on Saul. For a film that is all about death, we don’t actually see all that much death – it happens offscreen way more often than not. That camera work, as well as the best sound design of the year, paint the camp as a portrait of hell.
The film takes place over the span of about 36 hours or so, leading up to the infamous (and failed) Sonderkommando uprising. Throughout the film, Saul will use the upcoming event as a way to get outside his normal routines – which will take him to every part of the camp, performing one horrific task after another, with his mind always on the insane one he wants to pull off. It’s a necessarily grim film – one that doesn’t allow for the kind of easy redemption stories that we normally see centered on these types of movies. Nemes`view of life in the camps is that it is soul crushing – something that destroys the people well before they actually die. With Son of Saul, he has crafted a film that shows it. It is a technical marvel – a dark, haunting film – and a necessary one. We have seen enough inspirational movies about the Holocaust – ones about that focus on the living. Son of Saul focuses on something different – and that is what makes it so great.