Friday, January 15, 2016


Son of Saul (Saul fia)

Son of Saul official site The horror of the Holocaust is already well-known for us. Yet once again, the Hungarian director László Nemes is able to brilliantly plunge us deep into the enormity in his impressive feature directorial debut "Son of Saul" (Saul fia | Hungary 2015 | in Hungarian/Yiddish/German/Polish | 107 min.). What he accomplishes remarkably in this film is that he takes us to the concentration camp as close as possible and then evokes our own imagination to experience the heinous crimes at the death camp. It offers a completely different perspective from most works that depicts one of the darkest chapters in human history. The film's striking achievement is awarded with Grand Prix (second place) at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it might just bring the second foreign-language Oscar back to Hungry (the first is "Mephisto" in 1981).

In 1944, near the end of World War II, the Nazi regime speeds up its "final solution" by herding Jews into gas chambers day and night in Auschwitz concentration camp. To keep up with the needs of industrialized mass-killing, many Jewish prisoners are put into special units called Sonderkommandos to help with disposing the dead bodies and sorting through victims' belongings after each batch of extermination operation. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) works as a member of Sonderkommando right outside the metal door of a gas chamber. He looks completely numb and follows orders like a robot that performs the routines: shepherding the newly arriving Jews into the gas chamber, going through the clothes for valuables, removing the dead bodies, burning the corpses, and cleaning up the gas chamber for the next round of Jews.

When a teenager boy is found still alive after the gas chamber's metal door is reopened, Saul witnesses how a Nazi stops the boy's breathing and then schedules an autopsy of the boy by a Sonderkommando doctor. Upon Nazi's leaving, the seemingly emotionless Saul comes up to the doctor and tells him that the boy is his son and asks to have the body for a proper Jewish burial. That means he must find a rabbi to recite Kaddish when he buries the boy's body. Under Nazi's noses, he hides the boy's body, and then obsessively goes on an impossible mission of searching for a rabbi in the crowd that are marching to their death. Nothing can deter his determination, certainly risking his own life is nothing compared to the boy's burial.

Son of Saul Official Site

Shot with a narrow Academy ratio format, the director László Nemes unfolds his story by using close-ups at Saul's head almost throughout the entire movie. Even if we can have a glimpse of Saul's surroundings next to his head, they are still blurred by the camera's shallow-focus. However, we have little trouble filling in the rest of the images in our heads, in turn, feeling terrified by the sound of death that overwhelms Saul. As a result, we are closely confined to Saul's presence and we experience the unbearable first hand, similar to how Saul focuses on what's in his hands and walls off all the hell everywhere around him.

But what drives Saul into his single minded mission remains a mystery. He appears to become apathetic about both the living and the dead at the camp except the boy. He knows very well that his own destination in a few months will be just like everyone else's, but he has little concern over if or how he can survive. Giving the boy a proper burial overcomes everything in the world to him. His search for a rabbi in the death camp certainly creates many suspenseful and intense moments, but his actions and the often blank yet unforgettable looks on his face shed little light about the state of his mind.

"Son of Saul," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 15, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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