BFI London Film Festival: Son of Saul

Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár and Urs Rechn

by Joanna Orland

Son of Saul is by far the most profound, immersive Holocaust film ever made. It is completely unbelievable that this is director László Nemes’ first feature film.  It is a true masterpiece.

The film is a harrowing watch, and what makes it so is not the story, but the immersion.  While most Holocaust films use the war as a backdrop for their story, Son of Saul makes the Holocaust the story – not by bringing it to the audience on screen, but by putting the audience in the middle of the experience.  I’d always thought it impossible to gain a true sense of the atrocities of what happened in concentration camps, the closest I’ve come to it was when I visited Auschwitz to see for myself the ghosts of the past.  By no means am I saying that any film could even come close to demonstrating the horrors of what happened, but Son of Saul comes as close as cinematically possible to depicting a sense of what life must have been like for Jews and other prisoners of World War II.

The story is rather ‘simple’ – Saul has found the body of his son and rather than lose him among the ashes of burnt bodies, he wants to give him a proper Jewish burial.  This is Saul’s mission, and we follow him on this journey as he tries to find a Rabbi to help him.  The true story of this film is not about Saul, it is about his surroundings and the heinousness of what is going on around him.  This film is a portrait of life in a concentration camp and the visuals and sound masterfully paint this picture.

The camerawork in Son of Saul is genius.  The camera closely follows Saul in the foreground while the horrors around him are all out of focus, strongly implied rather than seen.  We see what Saul sees, what he is focusing on.  This not only immediately creates empathy for Saul, but it is also a stunning metaphor for the need to tune out the atrociousness that surrounds a prisoner.  Sound is also used in a rather alluding way with dialogue, screams, whispers all in various untranslated languages in surround sound, entrapping the audience in this terrifying world.

Son of Saul won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.  After having seen it for myself, I am united with the other flabbergasted journalists who can’t believe it didn’t win the top prize of the Palme d’Or.  There is no better film at the moment, no more powerful war film, no better a reminder that humanity can be cruel, but the human spirit must prevail.


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