I had my second viewing last night of Laszlo Nemes‘ Son of Saul (Sony Pictures Classics, 12.18). The previous time was in Cannes seven months ago, but it packed the same punch. I noticed an hour ago that Sony Pictures Classics has no teaser or trailer up, and it seems that there should be. Some kind of acknowledgement that a major Holocaust flick is coming down the pike in January that will qualify in December and that, you know, it’s absolutely essential to deal with it.
Shot entirely in close-ups (and occasional medium close-ups), Son of Saul is a Hungarian-made, soul-drilling, boxy-framed art film about an all-but-mute fellow (Geza Rohrig) with a haunted, obliterated expression. This titular-named survivor — a walking dead man, a kind of ghost — toils in an Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp as a Sonderkommando — i.e., prisoners who assisted the Germans in exterminating their fellow inmates in order to buy themselves time.
I’ve noted before that I found Saul devastating. “No day at the beach but one of the most searing and penetrating Holocaust films I’ve ever seen,” I wrote on 5.14.15, “and that’s obviously saying something.”
In my Telluride interview with Nemes he told me that he “didn’t want to make the usual film about the Holocaust. I want the viewer to experience what a single individual feels….how do you not make a classic historical drama and instead create something visceral?…because that’s what I thought would mostly talk to today’s audiences. In the usual holocaust films we see things from the outside. And I wanted this shot from the inside.”
The film is basically about Saul risking his life — foolishly, illogically — in order to properly bury a young boy who’s been exterminated, a boy he doesn’t know but whom he repeatedly claims in his son.
Why? Because Saul wants to fulfill a small act of honor before he dies — he wants to show reverence and respect for the boy, for his people, for life itself before the end.
“In general Saul is alone in what he tries to accomplish,” Nemes observes. “As a living dead [man] he finds something that activates a shred in humanity in him, and the movie is about how this this voice starts to make more sense than anything else.”
Saul will almost certainly be among the five nominees for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar, and I’d be more than a little surprised if it doesn’t win. It’s that kind of stand-out and a definite must-see.