'Son Of Saul' Is A Potent And Intimate Story Of Auschwitz [Fantastic Fest 2015 Review]

Son of Saul is a significant achievement made all the more astonishing by the fact that it is the director's debut feature. This intimate story from within the Holocaust avoids World War II movie cliches, turning away from convention to embrace an unflinching vision of one man's quest for redemption in the inferno of Auschwitz.

The phrase "Holocaust movie" may inspire an instinct to avoid rather than rush towards a film; in this case please don't give in. Son of Saul approaches its subject without gingerness or caution, but this film's spirit never falls into exploitation. More important, focusing on one man's experience does not trivialize the weight of the story's context. Seeing the Holocaust through Saul's own personal mission gives us a view of the genocide that is unlike any other in cinema.

Saul is a Hungarian Jew and a Sonderkommando — a prisoner conscripted into service for the Germans doing gut-wrenching labor in Auschwitz. We first see him as part of a crew that herds a group of captured Jews into a crematorium disguised as a shower. The Sonderkommando rifle through pockets of clothes left on hooks for any gold or valuables, then pile the bodies — or "pieces" as the translated subtitles call them — for disposal.

It's a shockingly horrific business, made worse by the brutally matter-of-fact means by which it is accomplished. First-time feature director László Nemes presents the drama in a slightly unusual manner that captures that brutality without wallowing in it. The camera is almost always on Saul, played by Géza Röhrig in a performance shorn of any stray gesture or frivolous word, his figure centered in the frame, facing us only some of the time.

Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély use a 4:3 frame rather than a widescreen image, and with Saul centered in the image there isn't much room for extraneous detail. We see the work of the camp going on around Saul, almost always out of focus, in the background. Physically, I found the film somewhat difficult to watch as I often tried to focus on details that were deliberately left out of focus. My eyes and brain never quite adjusted; I assume that discomfort is expected, and perhaps even intentional, but it is worth noting.

We hear far more than we see; the sound design is relentlessly detailed, and wild with a clanging, screaming din of hell. A clamor of languages — Polish, German, Hungarian — fills the air, but only select dialogue is subtitled, adding to the sense of chaos.

The effect on the audience is two-fold. We are intimately drawn into this apocalyptic factory without ever being able to focus too keenly on any one detail, and we're also given a sense of Saul's mindset. Perhaps the only way to survive such an ordeal with any semblance of mental or emotional identity is to let it all go out of focus, to keep some distance from the blasphemous assembly line.

Soon, however, Saul finds a singular purpose. In a mound of bodies is the corpse of a boy who Saul takes to be his son. There's reason to question whether or not the boy is actually related to Saul, though Sonderkommando finding their own relatives in the crematoria was not unheard of. Regardless, the boy's presence gives Saul a new focus. The dull rigors of surviving one more day are shoved aside so that he might give the boy a proper burial. That means hiding the body from the Germans, and finding a Rabbi to say the proper blessings.

The man soon proves willing to sacrifice almost anything to accomplish his self-appointed task, and at first the mission seems like insanity. What value is a prayer over the body of a dead boy when compared to the needs of other lives in the camp, or the simmering effort to rebel against the Germans? Will Saul add bodies to the ever-rising count of slain atrocity victims in order to make the situation right in his mind?

I had one answer to some of these questions as Son of Saul played, when the immediate cost of Saul's actions was fresh. Different answers came after much reflection on the nature of his quest as a representation of the religious and cultural identity the Holocaust intended to destroy. This film grapples openly with the power and importance of faith, and the conflicts between the immediate needs of a group, and following a personal line to reconciliation with God.

Director László Nemes and star Géza Röhrig are steadfast in their examination of Saul's courage, and show their own strength in avoiding easy ploys to make Son of Saul more "accessible." This film, with its stark immediacy and immersive qualities, is an incredibly powerful drama that finds grace in its unblinking consideration of Saul's harsh reality.

(This review is based on a screening of the film at Fantastic Fest 2015. Sony Pictures Classics will release Son of Saul in the US.)/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10