Son of Saul

Posted by Joel Copling on January 22, 2016

The men must do their work. That their work is the clean-up of the gas chambers in which Jews were exterminated under Adolf Hitler's paranoid rule and that they themselves are Jewish prisoners in a work camp are conditions to which they must become accustomed quickly. Indeed, our protagonist's haunted face, kept in near-constant close-up in an act that might just be intentional repression of sorts, looks as blankly as it can at whatever crosses his path. We don't always see what Saul (Geza Rohrig) sees, and that's key to the thesis presented by screenwriters Laszlo Nemes (who is also the director) and Clara Royer: These are the horrors of war as a cacophony of things we cannot and do not want to witness and what this man wants to block out.

He is a Hungarian Jew who is fluent in German, which is useful when he is being taunted by the officers and guards who oversee his and the other prisoners' progress in disposing of the bodies (or "pieces," which in the corner of one alarming shot seem to be exactly what is omitted from the phrase) of those prisoners not chosen to take part in the labor and instead to be gassed in the "shower" compartments of the death camps. It is a living Hell for those who must decontaminate the chamber, because an unsettling truth sets in very soon: This is a step away from being their fate.

And so they must work. Naked bodies exist at the blurred edges of frames--some in motion (such as in an extended and horrifying sequence involving a fire pit into which a number of prisoners are dumped after being shot in the head) and others not (the multitude of corpses piled unceremoniously onto other corpses). A tragic coincidence (perhaps the only contrived element of the screenplay) occurs when Saul's son finds his way among the victims--and initially alive, too, until one of the officers suffocates him in front of Saul, petrified with terror. Now his mission is one of grief: He wants to find a rabbi and bury his son properly.

The technique truly is key here, and it is not, to be clear, a cop out of any kind. There is a claustrophobia to the presentation of this harrowing material by Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely. Rohrig's performance is largely an expressive one, expounding a ton of emotional and moral energy as Saul, a broken but numb father who is in an impossible dilemma. The actor is phenomenal in his moments of greatest desperation, such as when the rabbi (Jerzy Walczak) he does find is the victim of the machinations of this Hell. In a way, all of those poor souls in "Son of Saul" suffer the same fate even if we don't (or can't) see it. There is no escape.

Film Information

Geza Rohrig (Saul), Levente Molnar (Abraham), Urs Rechn (Biedermann), Jerzy Walczak (Rabbi), Sandor Zsoter (Doctor), Marcin Czarnik (Feigenbaum).

Directed by Laszlo Nemes and written by Nemes and Clara Royer.

Rated R (disturbing violent content, graphic nudity).

107 minutes.

Released in select cities on December 18, 2015.