Son of Saul (titled Saul fia in Hungary, its country of origin) follows Saul, a member of a Sonderkommando unit during the horrifying days of Auschwitz. As Saul is carrying out the appalling duties that he is forced against his will to carry out, a group of doctors gather around the body of a boy who has survived a chamber gassing. The doctors then murder the child themselves. Saul sees this boy as his son and makes it his duty to give him a proper burial in the midst of a living hell.
Sonderkommandos were able-bodied Jews and prisoners in the death camps during WW2 who were forced to work into labouring roles including filling the gas chambers with compliant victims, cleaning the chambers after use and disposing of bodies that had been gassed.
One of my only criticisms with Son of Saul relates to something I said in the introductory paragraph; “Saul sees this boy as his son”. The reason I said “sees” and not “claims” or “identifies” is that I wasn’t entirely sure. There is evidence in the film to support that the boy is his son (scenes in the film as well as the title) but there is more evidence to support that they aren’t related in any way other than seeing each other for a couple of seconds.
That aside, Son of Saul is a masterpiece. It’s a real masterpiece and it just collected the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Son of Saul is now among the greatest WW2 films ever made, taking and presenting a perspective not widely used and usually failing when it is.
Son of Saul follows one character throughout the entire film and only gives us his perspective. The camera lens is always within a 20 centimetre radius of Saul’s head and unless another character is talking or is relevant to the story, they’re out of focus. Literally. The chaos and horror of Auschwitz is usually out of focus as if to emphasize that to Saul, everything’s a blur unless it requires his personal attention.
The camera is always following Saul and so a large portion of the film’s quality rests in the hands of Saul’s player, Géza Röhrig. And he does an amazing job. His emotions and thoughts are expressed beautifully through his facial expressions. Saul doesn’t speak until at least 20 minutes into the film and during those first 20 minutes, simply through Géza’s facial expressions, you can tell everything about the character from where he’s been, to where he knows he’s going, to how he feels about what he’s doing.
Each individual scene is done in one uninterrupted take. Every scene begins when Saul has begun working and ends once he’s finished. This is just how a film should be – beginning with the action and ending when it needs to.
Son of Saul is a very hard film to watch. Everything about the film screams “Masterpiece” but I would never pay to watch this again. It’s incredibly well made (and it needed to be made!) but this is a very distressing movie.
Son of Saul is one of the most astounding directorial debuts in years with it’s incredible directing choices, camera work, brutal realism and incredible performance from Géza Röhrig. But it’s not a popcorn film. You’re not going to watch Son of Saul and say “let’s see that again!”.
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