Festival Review: Son Of Saul (2015)

Son Of Saul

A devastating portrait of life in Auschwitz’ Sonderkommando, László Nemes’ Son Of Saul is a powerful testament of faith.

A Portrait Of Hell

by Mark Wilshin

Son Of Saul

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

While other filmmakers might carefully avoid the taboo of making fictional films set in Auschwitz, first time director László Nemes has no such qualms. And his debut feature Son Of Saul is a moving but unemotional look at life inside an extermination camp. Set inside the unique universe of the Sonderkommando, we follow Saul (Géza Röhrig) as he’s pulled and pushed from pillar to post, while embarking on an increasingly absurd quest to bury his son. En route we pass through gas chambers, krematoria, coal stores, and even to the pits where new arrivals are shot – the gates of hell itself. And yet with Saul occupying centre screen and the infernal machinations going on around him only glimpsed, either blurred in the background or cut off by the 4:3 framing, Son Of Saul puts the human experience first. And for Saul, just another shade among the walking dead, it’s only death and its rituals that still have meaning. Much like that other holocaust fiction film, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, it’s not the ordinary experience – as we watch Saul going against the flow, seemingly towards death with open arms as he tries to bury his dead according to the Jewish custom. And taking place in the Sonderkommando, just before the 1944 uprising, as the prisoners realised they were next in the firing line, there’s a degree of dramatic licence, cloaked partly by the chaos of the camp but also questionably couched in a network of mutual support and kindly kapos. Ending with a smile, Son Of Saul becomes strangely enigmatic – the boy at once the spirit of Saul’s son resting in peace but also a real child and perhaps a future freedom. Elsewhere. A sensitive and intelligent portrait of individual action amidst the crushed souls of Auschwitz, László Nemes’ Son Of Saul remains nevertheless a profound testament of faith.

Son Of Saul is now showing at the London Film Festival

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