Son Of Saul gets up close and personal with Auschwitz

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


The Holocaust is a horrible historical event of incredible magnitude. Something this big doesn’t just inspire a lot of stories; it also encourages a lot of different storytelling approaches.

The Oscar-nominated Son of Saul employs a particularly potent one that we haven’t seen before: first person point of view.
From the get-go, the camera focuses on Auschwitz intern Saul Aüslander and doesn’t let go until the end. Saul is a Sonderkommando, meaning a prisoner forced to aid in the disposal of gas chamber victims. The profoundly dehumanizing task leads Saul to obsess over providing a traditional Jewish funeral to a kid he claims was his son. The self-imposed mission, however, is at cross-purposes with other prisoners’ last-ditch attempt to escape.

Through Saul’s search for a rabbi to perform the clandestine burial, we witness the sickening everyday routine at the notorious concentration camp. First-time director László Nemes chooses not to show the horrors of Auschwitz head-on, but in the background, often out of focus, basically using our imagination to fill up the blanks. Nemes is also brilliant at using negative space and sound design. The only thing worse than muffled screams from inside a gas chamber is the silence that follows.

Son Of Saul’s unapologetic realism can take a toll on an audience, sort of like Schindler’s List did (although SOS doesn’t have the Spielbergian flourishes). The film is better experienced viscerally, although a second viewing is advisable to appreciate the many nuances Nemes sneaks in (you may miss it because of the subtitles, but language is a major problem for Saul.)

Considering the camera is consistently on his face, lead actor Geza Rohrig does a phenomenal job carrying the film without going over the top. It’s a mystery how a performance of this calibre failed to make the Academy’s short list.

On second thought, it’s not surprising at all. You wouldn’t want a no-name performance to take a prize away from established stars like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon.