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Son of Saul Movie Review

Son of Saul (2015) movie poster Son of Saul (Saul Fia)

US Theatrical Release: December 18, 2015 (Hungarian: June 11, 2015) / Running Time: 107 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: László Nemes / Writers: Clara Royer, László Nemes

Cast: Géza Röhrig (Saul Ausländer), Levente Molnár (Abrahám Warszawski), Urs Rechn (Oberkapo Biederman), Todd Charmont (Bearded Man), Sándor Zsótér (Doctor Miklos Nyiszli), Marcin Czarnik (Feigenbaum), Jerzy Walczak (Sonderkommando Rabbi Frankel), Uwe Lauer (SS Voss), Christian Harting (SS Busch), Kamil Dobrowolski (Mietek), Amitai Kedar (Hirsch), István Pion (Katz), Juli Jakab (Ella), Levente Orbán (Vassili), Gergö Farkas (Saul's Son), Balázs Farkas (Saul's Son)


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has a long history of recognizing films about the Holocaust. That is only part of the reason that Hungary's official submission for this year's Foreign Language Film Oscar, Son of Saul, has emerged as the category's frontrunner and was the only non-English film with a snowball's chance in Hell of cracking 2015's field of Best Picture nominees.

The feature debut of director László Nemes, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Clara Royle, Saul focuses on Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew who has been assigned to work among the Sonderkommando,
secret bearers who maintain the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The job is just as atrocious as it sounds, as Saul and his colleagues hear their fellow Jews screaming and falling to their deaths on a regular basis, only to have to then pile up the bodies, collect the valuables, and mop up all the blood.

These atrocities occur out of focus, while the camera remains fixed on Saul, the quiet, seemingly emotionless man you know is not entirely desensitized by this position. Saul seems to flinch just a tiny bit at the sight of a doctor examining a young boy who narrowly survived the lethal gas. The doctor finishes him off and then orders an autopsy. Saul brings the body back and asks the doctor not to cut him open, a well-known violation of Jewish tradition. He tells the doctor (Sándor Zsótér), a fellow Hungarian, the deceased is his son, a claim whose veracity is left uncertain to us.

"Son of Saul" focuses on Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a member of Auschwitz's Sonderkommando determined to give his son a proper Jewish burial.

Nonetheless, the doctor promises to do what he can and Saul vows to take whatever desperate measures he can to get this adolescent boy the proper Jewish burial he deserves in lieu of the mass cremation other gas chamber victims receive. The remainder of the film follows Saul on that perilous mission, as he looks for a rabbi who can recite the Kaddish and oversee the burial.

As should be perfectly clear by now, Son of Saul is one bleak movie. Most of us have seen the Holocaust dramatized elsewhere, whether in Schindler's List, The Pianist, or no shortage of European films.
Even so, familiarity can't prepare you for the gut-wrenching views of the Sonderkommandos' work, as lifeless naked bodies are dragged and stacked again and again unflinchingly. Saul's quest, no matter how insignificant it may seem against the entirety of the Holocaust, is a moral stance you can easily sympathize with. But it is not a journey that breeds hope or joy. The best-case scenario promises a sliver of comfort in a world of unthinkable persecution.

Nemes, who is not yet 40, makes a confident and distinctive debut, creatively utilizing the long-outmoded 1.37:1 aspect ratio and selective camera focus. But it is a difficult film to get through once and one you may well never wish to endure again. Without having yet seen any of the other four nominees, I can only assume that this Holocaust tale will prove too harrowing and heartbreaking for that Foreign Language Film Oscar to go anywhere else.

Related Reviews:
Oscar Nominees: SpotlightThe RevenantThe Big ShortThe Hateful EightJoySteve Jobs
Holocaust: The Boy in the Striped PajamasWoman in GoldThe Counterfeiters
Past Foreign Language Film Oscar Contenders: AmourLeviathanWild TalesThe Great BeautyKon-Tiki

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Reviewed January 22, 2016.

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