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Film review: Son of Saul – Oscar-winning Holocaust drama a haunting take on Auschwitz horrors

Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut about a Jewish prisoner who has to bury victims of the Nazi gas chambers is a film unlike any other, one that leaves viewers with more questions than answers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 3:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 March, 2016, 5:04pm

By the time Son of Saul reaches its unavoidably harrowing end you’ll remember the face of Géza Röhrig – and that’s not just because much of this Holocaust drama’s 107-minute runtime is spent with the actor in medium close-up, only fleetingly cutting away to reveal the horrors in which his character is engulfed. In a haunting portrayal that’s on a par with Renée Falconetti’s in the Carl Theodor Dreyer classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Röhrig silently conveys the abject suffering in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Formerly a musician, teacher and poet of several published volumes, the first-time film actor plays Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner who lives on borrowed time by working as a Sonderkommando member. As he carries out his everyday duties ushering unsuspecting Jews into gas chambers and disposing of their bodies afterwards, Saul appears emotionless – that is, until he inexplicably takes a dead boy for his son, and becomes determined to arrange a traditional Jewish burial for the body.

SEE ALSO: How architect Laszlo Rajk designed the crematorium set for Holocaust drama Son of Saul

The Grand Prix recipient at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival and the best foreign-language film winner at this year’s Golden Globe and Academy Awards, this feature debut by László Nemes hasn’t only made a stylish first impression for the Hungarian director and co-screenwriter, but has also moulded the Nazi death camp testimony into a first-person narrative experiment unlike any other fiction film before it. With no establishing shots and minimal expositions, Son of Saul gives us a protagonist whose motives are both urgent and opaque.

While others remind him that he hasn’t a son to start with, Saul remains convinced of his own mission, going so far as to risk the lives of others and undermine a revolt that his fellow Jews are planning. Nemes’ nightmarish film is ultimately as much a vivid reconstruction as it’s an immense quandary for the morally minded: is the boy Saul’s son or a projection of his symbolic search for closure? Is Saul responsible for the deaths he indirectly causes when every Jew is presumably doomed anyway? Why is any of this happening at all?

Son of Saul opens on March 3

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