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Son of Saul [AFI FEST 2015]
Sony Pictures // R // December 18, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Afi]
When analyzing a film, it's important to determine who is in charge of telling the story. Depending upon who is in this position of creative power, the representations of the plot and the characters will greatly vary. Writer/director László Nemes and co-writer Clara Royer took this into account when tackling some sensitive and horrifying subject matter in their feature debut titled Son of Saul. From the moment that the film was inspired, Nemes and Royer had the goal of making the most immersive and well-represented feature possible, as inspired by a book. If produced by Hollywood, this dramatic tale of a man's mission would have been turned into yet another Holocaust flick that relies almost solely on shock value. However, in the hands of Nemes and Royer, it proves to be a very different film.
Taking place in Auschwitz in 1944, Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jew with the title Sonderkommando. This was the name given to the group of Jews separated from the rest and forced to work in the death camps. One day, Saul finds the body of a young boy that he takes for his son. He makes it his personal mission to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial, as the remainder of the Sonderkommando plot a rebellion against the German soldiers.
Son of Saul opens with a blurred frame that remains so until our lead character rushes onto the screen, who remains to be the only subject in focus for a great portion of the running time. The opening sequence is perhaps one of the most immersive, yet horrifying introductions of all time. Not only are we instantly interested in what will happen next, but it introduces the audience to this terrifying world in a way that will certainly be remembered for years to come. The tension explored within these few minutes is miraculously relentless for the film's entire duration. While there are entire sequences without a word of dialogue, an ominous tone and a strong central character are what keeps the audience in suspense. Even by the time that we reach the picture's final act, Nemes and Royer surprisingly always keep things rooted in reality. They are presenting the story of a mission of morality, and not a war movie.
Since the time period is 1944 in Auschwitz, audiences will be quick to call this a "Holocaust" film. However, this is an unfair judgment, as these features have come to be recognized solely for the stereotypical quality of their shock value. Nemes and Royer's screenplay does everything in its power to separate itself from such assumptions by making the scope much smaller. The entire story follows Saul, and only Saul. We don't leave his presence for even a moment. Son of Saul isn't trying to tell the story of the war from either side. However, it is about an ordinary man who is willing to do anything to stop this child from being autopsied and burnt along with the rest of the victims. Yet, Nemes and Royer never glorify these actions, as we begin to question his state of mind and motivations. The Sonderkommando rebellion is a sub-plot, although it never takes the spotlight. It acts as a framework for this personal journey that ultimately proves to be more captivating than pretty much any "Holocaust" film out there.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can give Son of Saul is that it's the most thought-provoking feature of 2015 thus far. This is a film that deserves to be seen more than once, as every individual sequence could be analyzed. Nemes' direction in particular speaks volumes about both Saul and himself as an artist. The basic plot is understandable upon a first-time viewing, but the conclusion in particular is something that can be discussed and debated for hours. Son of Saul is rich and complex filmmaking that deserves to be analyzed for all that it has to offer. Environments and characters are incredibly well-researched, as it truly immerses the audience in its story. It doesn't take long for us to forget that we're watching a movie.
Writer/director László Nemes worked for a time as an apprentice to another filmmaker, but has only crafted his own short films otherwise. The fact that this is his feature-length debut is absolutely astounding. He has already proven that he has a firm understanding of perspective. Not only did Nemes narrow the scope of the plot, but he did the same for the visuals. Nearly the entire film is composed of close-ups of Saul, as we can barely see the out of focus backgrounds. Nemes wants the viewer to see and feel as Saul does every step of the way. He has become numb to the death that surrounds him, so the audience only witnesses death in a blurred fashion. There isn't any score, although the sound design proves to be one of the film's greatest assets. It utilizes the sound of shovels scooping the ashes of the dead, the screaming of the Germans' commands, and the ringing of gunshots. It begins to sound rhythmic and we become desensitized to it all by around the midpoint. While some of the shaky handheld footage can get a bit exhausting, Nemes has captured something special here.
This may be Nemes' feature-length debut, but he has already displayed a mastery in tension, character, and visual style that many filmmakers fail to achieve over a lifetime of crafting motion pictures. Not only is it entirely absorbing through every moment of its duration, but it makes for a thought-provoking piece of art that could be discussed and analyzed for hours on end. It certainly won't leave your mind in the days to come after the credits are done rolling. Those looking at the film at a glance will classify this as another "Holocaust" flick, but it approaches the time period and subject matter with a perspective that is unlike anything else out there. This film automatically makes Nemes an artist worth keeping an eye on. Son of Saul is gripping, haunting, and absolutely brilliant. Highly recommended!
Son of Saul will be playing at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 9th and November 10th.