Hungary’s Official Selection for Best Foreign Language Film to the Academy Awards, “Son of Saul” is ever hopeful to be selected to that short list of finalists on Friday when it also opens in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre. Having already won four awards at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prix, co-writer/director Laszlo Nemes creates a powerful and haunting portrait of one man’s journey for a glimpse of humanity within the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
Saul (an excellent Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian prisoner who is a member of the “Sonderkommando” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This Jewish group of prisoners is forced to handle the factory-like process of the extermination of their fellow men and women. For this obviously horrific work, these members of the Sonderkommando receive some extra privileges, like food, and their own sleeping quarters. But as an opening title card informs us, they only last in the position for a few months before being executed themselves.
During the removal of the dead, Saul comes across a young boy, he thinks is his son. Shaken out of his own stupor, he tries to retrieve the boy and find a rabbi to recite a mourner’s Kaddish for a proper burial. At times seeming like a completely senseless and dangerous task within this factory of mass killings, Saul’s persistence renews within him the value of religion, humanity and morality – something he had long lost inside.
Make no mistake; “Son of Saul” is brutal. But it’s also a cinematic feat. Nemes explains in his film’s production notes that he worked closely with cinematographer, Matyas Erdely and production designer, Laszlo Rajk. Their intent was that the film would not look beautiful or appealing. To obtain this raw look, the team shot with 35 mm film and used photochemical processing. They also used the same camera lens throughout, a 40 mm lens that restricted the field of vision for both Saul and viewers.
Erdely also filmed everything at Saul’s eye level, almost like his point-of-view. Audiences saw what Saul saw; experienced information alongside Saul. This style of filmmaking creates a completely immersive and claustrophobic experience. We are witnessing one man’s story as if we are walking beside him.
Credit is also due to the sound designer, Tamas Zanyi, who created a complex and vividly aural world within these chambers of death. Like Saul, we may not see all of the horrors occurring behind every door or wall, but we experience every shriek, cry, shout, or explosion.
For his debut feature, director Laszlo Nemes packs a wallop with “Son of Saul.” Expect this film to be on many year-end Best Lists as well as the short list for Best Foreign Film Oscar.
“Son of Saul” is 107 minutes, Rated R and opens December 18 in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre.