Review: Son of Saul (2015) — Unconventional, immersive experience of holocaust

Geza Rohrig son of saul fia movie still

Saul fia / Son of Saul

Movie review

There are already a number of shocking and heart-wrenching depictions of the tragic horrors of the holocaust and by now, those who’ve seen at least a few of these film would already kind of have an idea of what the holocaust is, how indescribably terrible it was, why it should never have happened, how fortunate that most of us didn’t have to go through that, why everyone should hate Nazi and Hitler and all those alike, etc. So what does this 88th Academy Award and Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, has to offer that’s different? A one-of-a-kind, effective visual experience.

Son of Saul (Soul fia in Hungarian) is a highly impressive feature film debut for László Nemes, who directed and co-written the film. The entire film takes place in the Nazi’s Auschwitz extermination camp during World War II and follows a Hungarian-Jewish Sonderkommando named Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) who’s gone completely numb and almost expressionless due to his daily tasks of dragging the dead bodies, scrubbing the floor immediately after they’re murdered in batches, and collecting valuable belongings from their clothes. One day, he finds the body of a boy whom he recognises and determines to find a rabbi to give him a proper Jewish burial while the other Sonderkommando’s are planning a rebellion against SS-guards in the camp.

son of saul fia movie still

Shot with on 35mm film, Nemes’ anti-conventional film follows Saul very closely throughout this one day and a half of his with the camera view rotating around his upper body (almost like a third-person view of a video game). While his surroundings are out of focus on screen at most times, it’s more than enough to allow the audience to easily imagine activities and graphic cruelty that are going on around Saul. Many of the scenes are shot in long, unbroken takes which contributes to the unique approach’s immersive realism. Forgive me for the lack of appropriate words to use, but this is absolutely brilliant direction, set-planning, cinematography and soundwork. Although the running time is only 107 minutes, it does indeed feel like going through a day and a half, restlessly.

While it’s a very commendable performance by Geza Rohrig, I find his role Saul highly frustrating and challenging to empathise. While his fearlessness to “do something good’ is admirable, his reckless actions and decisions in attempt to accomplish his goal cause the lives of others (who’re trying their best to survive) and he lacks remorse for it. Maybe it’s due to the film’s deliberate arthouse, ambiguous nature that I’m supposed to find a meaningful interpretation, appreciate Saul’s moral complexity (or insanity driven by inhumanity), or trigger a discussion with other viewers, but regardless, the protagonist’s story is simply not impactful enough. However, I do recommend people to watch the film and experience it themselves. It’s thoroughly grim but intense and again, it does feel horrifically real. Definitely worthwhile.

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What I would’ve named the film: “Better NOT Call Saul”

Malaysian censorship: The film is filled with holocaust killings, dead bodies and some nudity but they’re mostly out of focus like as though they were censored.

Verdict: While the story may not be as impactful as some of the other holocaust films, the film’s unique approach offers a viewing experience that feels horrifically real.

Rating: 4 / 5

* In respect to the sensitive subject, no meme was created for this review.

son of saul fia movie poster malaysiaCountry / Languages: Hungary / Hungarian, German, Polish and more

Genre: War thriller drama
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Screenwriters: László Nemes, Clara Royer
Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn

Malaysia Release Date: 3 November 2016 (select GSC cinemas only)
Rated: 18
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Production: Hungarian National Film Fund, Laokoon Film Arts, Laokoon Filmgroup

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