Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Son of Saul (2015), by László Nemes.
Oscar-winner Son of Saul (Saul Fia, in its original title), directed by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, portrays the obsessive efforts of a Jewish Sonderkommando member in a Nazi concentration camp to bury the corpse of a young boy in the traditional way prescribed by Judaism.
The plot is as straightforward as it is filled with dramatic and character-development potential.
In Son of Saul, László Nemes turns the camera on the individual’s weaknesses and vulnerability under the crushing weight of the Holocaust, following the desperate attempts of a Hungarian Jewish Sonderkommando member, Saul Auslander (played by Geza Rhorig), to organize a traditional Jewish funeral to bury a dead child.
Saul, whose formal role in the death camp is to facilitate the operation of gas chambers and bury the corpses, hopelessly seeks a rabbi to perform the ritual funeral.
Dealing with one of Europe’s biggest traumas
A number of ambitious artistic and cinematic endeavors tried to heal the wounds caused by the Holocaust by depicting the suffering of its victims from various angles. Roberto Benigni operated with the distinct genre of dramatic humor when he directed the unforgettable Life is Beautiful in 1997, while Steven Spielberg put humanity and empathy at the heart of Schindler’s List a few years before that.
After István Szabó’s Mephisto in 1981, Son of Saul was the second Hungarian film to receive the long-desired Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016.
Hungarian art in all its forms has a rich history of works illustrating the hell of Holocaust from an odd and new perspective, including Fateless, Imre Kertesz’s Nobel Prize-winning novel of 2002 that shows the trauma through the eyes of a teenage Jewish boy.
Son of Saul stages a desperate fight for the respect of traditions and prioritizes selflessness over the individual’s own survival. Nemes highlights this contrast by placing two parallel events in the storyline: while Saul is struggling to give the child a proper Jewish burial, the Sonderkommando organizes a rebellion in the concentration camp.
The protagonist’s sedulous involvement in organizing the riot quickly takes second place, as he even misplaces the stolen explosives and undermines the uprising to save the life of a spiritual leader.
To rationally sketch Saul’s manic search for a rabbi in the death camp and display how his own priorities were transformed by excluding the outside world, many scenes use the one-shot technique against an obscure background, in 4:3 format and without any music, focusing the viewer’s attention on the protagonist’s facial expressions.
The surrounding environment between locations remains unclear, events are only seen for a moment, Nazi soldiers and other captives are barely presented, and scenes are mostly made up of smoke, frenzied screams, dripping water, shots and explosion.
The hidden albeit eventful atmosphere surrounding the fractured character of Saul creates an effect akin to watching an old and damaged photo where only the subjective can be seen, while the surroundings remain blurry and gloomy. How to better portray the horror than to focus solely on one shattered man’s broken soul?
Such craft naturalistically stimulates Saul’s feelings, how he focuses on his inner thoughts, and gives the impression that the viewer may only see what the protagonist allows him to see. Nemes’ professional style uniquely sketches the horrors of the death camp, and while the suffering of the prisoners is palpable, it remains barely visible to the audience.
By Bence Janek
Bence is a Budapest-born political science graduate, who studied in the United States and Spain. He previously worked for a government relations firm in Washington D.C., and later joined Ernst & Young Budapest. Bence is a freelance writer with expertise in the field of Hungarian and international business sectors, media, films and communication.