I suddenly feel compelled to ignore any other movie I’ve watched lately and do a little write-up on a movie that at first failed to have an impact on me, emotionally. Two days after my first viewing of it, I feel like this movie has become a part of me, a part of my knowledge, a part of my beliefs, a part of my existence. It is a movie that does not throw itself at a viewer, it does not force any tears or rage, it does not drag the viewer into its lurid world, it just is. I am talking about the fantastic Hungarian Oscar winner for best foreign film of 2015, Son of Saul.
It took a lot of time for me to dive into Saul of Saul, the film directed by Hungarian director László Nemes, starring first time actor Géza Röhrig. For those who don’t know what the film is about, it’s the story of a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz concentration camp, who tries to give proper burial to the body of who he believes is his little boy, his lost son. Yes, this is another Holocaust movie. Yes, it shows mass murder in the world’s biggest concentration camp. Yes, you all think you have seen it before. Don’t worry. You haven’t. This is no Schindler’s List, no Boy in the Striped Pajamas, no Pianist. This is a claustrophobic, harrowing experience shot in 40mm lens that focuses on one character, and one character only. This character’s name is Saul. He is no saint. His job is to push Jewish families, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled into the gas chambers. His job is to drag the lifeless bodies out of the gas chambers. His job is to burn the bodies. His job is to burn all the evidence: clothes, documents, hair. His job is to make it look like it never happened. His job is to die after a few months of bloody hard work.
This movie does not spare any punches. It keeps you glued to the main character, Saul. Everything else is out of focus because of the very limited range a 40mm lens can offer. You hear sounds. You heard people screaming in pain. Children laughing. You hear gunshots. You hear bodies being dumped into mass graves. The camera stays with Saul and follows him anywhere he goes. Saul, in fact, may seem like a heartless man. Lacking any character depth, any real grit, emotion. He looks like a walking dead person. That’s because he is. If you think about it, after witnessing all the horrors portrayed in this movie, how can someone call it a life when your daily routine consists of burning innocent people? In Schindler’s List Spielberg presented us with characters that cared about each other, in Life is Beautiful Benigni played a loving father that looked after his family. These were characters that even during the hardest of times were always there for each other. In Son of Saul the rule is each man for himself. There is no unity, no brotherhood. If you help someone, you die. That’s why we only see what Saul does. The director wants the camera to be his only companion, his only true friend that stays quiet throughout the whole movie. We observe. We keep silent. We witness Saul trying to find a reason to survive. We witness Saul do all kinds of sacrifices in order to save the dead body of a boy that may not even be his son. We witness Saul trying to save himself from all this madness.
It is an excruciating but beautiful thing to witness. This movie is a lot to take.