Son of Saul (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

The sheer passion behind both the supporters and detractors of this movie should be clue enough that this is a film worth seeing.


I’m writing this review three days before the Hungarian film Son of Saul opens in St. Louis in its regular run, and already it feels like one of those films where so much has already been written about it that it’ll be hard to bring anything new to the table. It’s like we’re dealing with Battleship Potemkin or Rear Window or something, and not a film that was only seen by anyone for the first time some eight months ago.

Now, it’s true that Son of Saul screened in St. Louis at last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, and has been in release in other parts of the country for about a month now. But ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it won the Grand Prix (which is essentially second place, despite the fact that “grand prix” translates as “grand prize”), it has been studied, debated, celebrated, denounced.

It takes a topic that hits a nerve to invoke this kind of reaction, and the Holocaust is one of them. Son of Saul, specifically, is a relentlessly near-first person account of the Holocaust—the camera is essentially glued on the back of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig)’s head, not unlike how it is on the back of Olivier Gourmet’s in the Dardenne brothers’ 2002 film The Son (another Cannes prizewinner, though the similarities pretty much end there). Saul is in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the Sonderkommando being a unit of Jewish prisoners afforded longer lives in exchange for doing the horrible and noxious grunt work that a place like Auschwitz needs to run as the Nazis want it to. Which is to say, the camera stays on Saul’s back as he removes bodies from the gas chambers, cleans them (the chambers), searches the bodies for any valuables worth keeping, etc.

The narrative arc in Son of Saul comes in Saul’s discovery of the body of a young boy in the aftermath of the gas chambers, which boy may or may not be his son, and Saul’s subsequent quest to give the boy a proper burial.

Son of Saul is the first feature film from director László Nemes, whose largest credit prior to now was as an assistant director on fellow Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s 2007 film The Man from London. Röhrig, whose performance is close to astounding, is an ex-kindergarten teacher and current poet who has resided in Bronx for the past fifteen years. Cameraman Mátyás Erdély has exponentially more credits than Nemes and Röhrig combined, but his most recognizable films (last year’s James White, 2011’s Miss Bala) don’t really prepare you for the excellent work he does here.

The sheer passion behind both the supporters and detractors of this movie should be clue enough that this is a film worth seeing, if only to see which side of the debate you land on. Me, I’m closer to the “love it” side, though in fairness it left me just a little cold upon my first viewing, and has grown in stature in my memory since then.

Bonus: Like big-name directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, László Nemes is a proponent of film prints over DCPs, and distributor Sony Pictures Classics has been doing a good job of following his wishes, screening the film from 35mm whenever possible. We had a 35mm print at Son of Saul’s SLIFF screening, and reportedly the film will run from 35mm at Plaza Frontenac as well. All the more reason to go see it, as far as I’m concerned. | Pete Timmermann

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