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Son of Saul

December 11, 2016

Son of Saul (2016)
Director: László Nemes
Actors: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn

saul.jpg (258×196)

Synopsis: In the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, Saul (Géza Röhrig) works as a sonderkommando (Nazi minion). He spies a dead boy who he believes is his son – this leads him on a covert mission to try and find a rabbi who can give his son a proper Jewish burial.

Review: László Nemes’ formally astringent evocation of the brutal industrial machinery of Nazism and the concentration camps is a technically impressive piece of work, only marginally undone by a certain one-dimensionality of conceit which begins to draw glaring attention to the film’s rhetorical and moral intent.

Nemes takes the decision to make Saul not only his film’s moral – but also literal – conduit. The camera perpetually hugs the shoulders or gaunt visage of Saul – acting as proxy for Saul’s stunned processing of the tyrannous cavalcade of inhuman degradation that parades around him. Has there ever been a film with a more pointed use of depth of focus, as, by following Saul, we’re permitted only flashes or blurred sightings of the canvas of pure horror (whether it be frightened masses being ushered into gas chambers or mass graves, or the litany of dead, naked bodies being heaped up inside the hellish charnels of Auschwitz).

The quality of Nemes’ technique infuses the feel of an unspooling nightmare. It’s not literally filmed in a single take or in real-time, but Nemes’ storytelling mastery approximates that sensibility as we follow Saul through his increasingly fraught journey into the cogs of industrial subordination.

In some respects, Nemes is right to be filming the holocaust in this way, without the overt aestheticisation of a Schindler’s List for example (there is no non-diegetic music and the narrative sticks steadfastly to Saul’s burrowed mission). However, there’s still a conceit and rhetorical aim in Nemes’ strategy, and because it’s essentially a single ethic/aesthetic assault, it can feel slightly samey and obvious over its near two hour running-time – the subtextual message becomes quite easy to discern within the first 15 minutes, and Nemes doesn’t really elevate his commentary on humanity, mortality or one man’s quest for transcendence from that point on. (December 2016)

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