May 24, 2016 at 11:56 am #15121
By JEFF FARANCE
Film Critic, New Church Family, Daytona Beach
”Son of Saul” is rated R for violence and nudity; critic’s rating: 4 1/2 out
of 5 stars.¬†
Death and desolution are hallmarks of ”Schindler’s List.” Yet it was a life-
affirming film. Not so ”Son of Saul,” which is haunting, mesmerizing and
often abhorent. Not to say it’s a bad movie. Being viscerally honest, though,
doesn’t equate to entertaining.
This 107-minute debut of co-writer/director Laslo Nemes is also the first
acting gig for its star, fellow Hungarian and renowned poet Geza Rohrig. The
film is in Hungarian, German and Yiddish with subtitles. Oh, and it’s the first
Hungarian film ever to win the Academy Award.
Like ”Schindler’s List,” ”Son of Saul” follows the plight of European
Jews in World War II. In the former film, they find salvation in the efforts by
a life-risking German who shelters and feeds them while finding ways to send
them out of Nazi Germany.
The populace of ”Son of Saul” have no such savior. They are in the
concentration camp Auschwitz in October 1944 as Germany is losing the war and
hurriedly extinguishing as many targeted lives as it can, then covering the
tracks of this genocide.
To enhance the efficiency of its fatal gas chambers, the Nazis conscript
Sonderkommandos, Jews who assist in funneling their own people into ”showers”
while promising them food, clothes and jobs when they emerge. Amid the screams
and cries of the panicked mobs, they rummage through the discarded clothing for
valuables to be turned over to the guards.
Membership in the Sonderkommandos yields more and better food along with other
meager bonuses. It also buys time, as these Jews remain outside the gas chambers
while herding their fellows inside. However, as keepers of grave secrets about
the camps’ operations, they often are spontaneously exterminated.
”Son of Saul” never questions the motives or morality of those who
cooperated with the Nazis in this Faustian deal that may have bought them an
hour, a day, a month.
Instead, the film focuses, quite literally on Saul himself, whose sharp
features stay in sharp definition while the horrors around him are generally
softened. Most of the tale is told through his expressive face and covers two
days in his life. While fictional, it parallels an actual rebellion by
Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz.
It begins when a young boy is found alive when all those who went into the gas
chamber with him died. A doctor is summoned to dispatch the stubborn teen.
Saul, working nearby, looks at the lad and immediately claims him as his son,
even though the film never establishes if any relationship actually exists.
He secrets the canvas-wrapped corpse while he tries to persuade one of the
rabbis to preside over the boy’s burial. One offers to privately say the Kaddish
prayer for the dead. Another refuses to risk retribution for such action, since
it could mean his own death.
Saul is accused of ignoring the living to dignify the dead. Other prisoners
are documenting the war crimes and plotting to smuggle photos out of the camp as
well as escape themselves as Saul fanatically works to properly inter his
”We’ll die because of you,” challenges one fellow prisoner.
”We’re already dead,” Saul responds.
In the final scenes, the prisoners’ resistance turns into a bloody battle,
fought incongrously on a cheerful, sunny day.
There are no dolly or crane shots, no studio set-up scenes here. Handheld
camerawork is in constant motion, recording the pain and humiliation with death
lurking in the slightly fuzzy background at every instant.
”Son of Saul” has no soundtrack. Gunshots, shrieks and body blows are the
rhythms that drive this raw nerve of a film. To experience it is to gain a
better sense of the times it depicts. Avoiding the Hollywood conventions of
”Schindler” and others, it nonetheless burrows into the conscience and
provokes questions and reactions that won’t go away soon. Nor should they.
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