A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Son of Saul begins with an out-of-focus figure walking across a field toward the camera until he finally comes into focus. This is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando -- a Jewish prisoner tasked with clean-up duties in a Nazi death camp. In a bravura sequence, the camera (the cinematographer is Mátyás Erdély) stays focused on Saul in near-closeup as it tracks what he is doing: helping herd naked people into the "showers" where they are gassed, rifling through their belongings that they have neatly hung up in an anteroom (they were, in a particularly sadistic stroke, told to remember the numbers of the hooks on which they hung their clothes and to hurry their showers because the promised soup is getting cold), then helping take the bodies (referred to by the Nazis as "die Stücke," or "pieces") to the crematorium, and scrubbing the floors in the gas chamber. It's a sequence made more horrifying by the fact that all of these events take place in the slightly out-of-focus background as the camera concentrates on Saul. But something out of the ordinary happens: A boy is found still alive in the gas chamber, and Saul recognizes him. He will later tell others that the boy is his son, from a liaison with a woman not his wife, which explains the unusual interest he takes in this particular victim: When the boy is sent to the doctors, he is smothered to death by an SS officer who then orders an autopsy to try to explain why he survived the gas. Saul, who witnesses this murder, persuades a sympathetic doctor to hold off on the autopsy and keep the body from being cremated. Saul's efforts to hide the body and to find a rabbi who can perform a ritual burial form the rest of the film's narrative. He is aided in his efforts but sometimes also resisted by other prisoners, who are plotting a rebellion against the guards. It's an extraordinarily harrowing film that won the foreign language film Oscar and numerous critics society awards. Remarkably, it's also writer-director László Nemes's first feature film, and Röhrig, on whom the camera is focused for virtually the entire time, had only a Hungarian TV miniseries made in 1989 as an acting credit. Like many films about the Holocaust it runs the risk of turning its subject into melodrama or of desensitizing the audience to the depicted horrors. It doesn't quite avoid the risk -- there are times when Saul's implacable determination tests our credulity, and there is always the awareness that these are "just actors" portraying things that happened to real people -- but it's an honorable contribution to a difficult genre.