Director: László Nemes
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sandor Zsoter.
107min Wartime Drama Hungary
László Nemes learnt his craft under the legendary Hungarian director, Bela Tarr. His feature debut is a shocking and claustrophobic thriller exploring the little known lives of the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced, under pain of death, to clean up the gas chambers during the final days of Auschwitz in 1944.
Clearly, Nemes is an inventive talent in the making. His restless camera tells a secret and conspiratorial story in pin-sharp close-up while in the background, out-of-focus atrocities are seen unfolding in the Nazi concentration camp and its surroundings. The action focuses on Saul (Géza Röhrig), a man whose mission is to herd his own people into massive ovens and lock them in as their pitiful cries and raging emerges.
One boy survives the onslaught, but is subsequently suffocated by a German officer. Saul appears to recognise him as his own son and sets off in desperation to find a Rabbi to say prayers and bury him according to the Jewish faith. A constant whispering and bartering in going on before our eyes, and while Saul is bribing his fellow inmates with golden and precious personal effects (from the dead) jewellery, an escape plan is also brewing.
But unlike his master of slow-motion, Nemes offers up a fast-moving and disorientating action thriller. Sometimes the camera is behind his shoulder focusing on the chattering and internal conspiracy between the inmates, others it focuses on the background, where German officers bait and bully the Sonderkommandos. Dead bodies are dragged by and thrown onto trucks in blurry, soft-focus. In one scene, at entire battle is going on in the hazy distance, where prisoners are being shot and forced into open burial pits as fires rage and gunfire rings out. It feels as it Nemes is running two contemporaneous film sets; one in the foreground and one of horrific slaughter and anihilation in the near distance. There is a remarkable single take, in pristine focus, where Saul carries the body of his “son” into a river and swims to the other side.
This is a work of supreme craftsmanship but also a harrowing and devastating tribute to the Sonderkommandos, who knew their lives would also end in slaughter, when their job was done and Géza Röhrig’s performance rings of both subtle defiance and acceptance. The final scene seems to allow a chink of light and hope into this dreadful darkness, as his face lights up into a gradual smile in the middle of a verdant forest.
Son of Saul serves as a positive revival of the Holocaust with other recent films such as Night Will Fall and Shoah. MT
NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE NATIONWIDE | OSCAR WINNER FOR BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM 2016 | FIPRESCI PRIZE WINNER CANNES 2016 | FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW | CANNES 2015