Movie review of “Son of Saul”: This Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film takes us into the heart of the Holocaust. Géza Röhrig’s performance is an extraordinary feat of minimalism. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
These are the sounds of hell: The frenzied barking of dogs. The shouting of guttural German commands. The roaring of flames. The desperate pounding on gas-chamber doors. The muffled cries from behind those doors.
These are the sights of hell: Crowds of people being herded into disrobing rooms and then into the gas chamber. Masses of bodies being dragged away over stained concrete floors. Bodies being fed into ovens. Mounds of gray ash being diligently shoveled into a river.
And above all, this sight: one man’s face — haggard, drained of emotion, features set in a mask of impassivity, yet alert, watchful, somehow alive in the midst of omnipresent death.
Movie Review ★★★★
‘Son of Saul,’ with Géza Röhrig. Directed by László Nemes, from a screenplay by Nemes and Clara Royer. 107 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity. In Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Russian and Polish, with English subtitles. Seven Gables.
These are the sounds and sights of “Son of Saul,” an appalling, overwhelming descent into the heart of the Holocaust.
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Set in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, it’s unsparing in its depiction of a world where death is mass produced with industrial efficiency and where decency is ruthlessly extinguished.
Co-written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, “Son of Saul” — nominated for a best-foreign-language-film Oscar — is the story of inmate Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), the man whose face is the centerpiece of the picture.
He’s a member of the so-called Sonderkommando unit of Jews selected by the Nazis to herd fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then feed their corpses into the ovens. Somehow, against all odds, a tiny shard of humanity still exists within him.
It’s that shard that motivates Saul to try to bury a boy killed in the gas chamber rather than allow him to be consigned to the flames. Objectively, it’s hopeless. The Nazis won’t permit such a thing. If they discover what he’s trying to do, they’ll kill him out of hand.
Why does he do it? Saul insists the boy is his son, but it’s unclear whether that is in fact so. Yet despite the danger, he is spurred to try. His humanity, though dreadfully atrophied, demands that he do what he can to see that this boy is buried with a rabbi saying a prayer over him.
Nemes focuses the entirety of the movie on Saul. The audience is allowed to see only what he sees. And what he sees is often indistinct.
Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély have adopted a strategy of giving the camera what amounts to astigmatism: Background images are deliberately blurred. It suggests that the horror is such that Saul has self-protectively numbed himself to the sights that surround him and the terrible things he’s forced to do.
Röhrig’s performance is an extraordinary feat of minimalism. His expressions convey a deadened spirit. Yet behind his eyes and at the corners of his mouth are signs of a spirit that won’t be crushed.