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Reviews - Son Of Saul

Son Of Saul

Reviewed By Chris Coombes

Son Of Saul
Son Of Saul
Last Sunday Keswick Film Club showed Son of Saul, by Hungarian Director Laszio Nemes, and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film 2016 – an astonishing achievement given this was his first film.

It was not an easy watch. It was confronting, terrifying and exhausting.

It is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. A Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given food and other pitiful privileges for carrying bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burned, then carting the ashes away to be dumped. The task is carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating rate around the clock, as the Allies close in, and we watch the killing machine become less and less efficient and more cruel. Saul discovers a body that he believes to be his son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give the boy a proper burial, using pleas, threats, blackmail and bribes – with jewellery that he steals from the bodies – to achieve his aim. Saul's desperate mission is carried out with the same urgent, hoarse whispers and mutterings as another plot in progress: a planned uprising, in which Saul also finds himself involved. The Sonderkommando know that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.

The claustrophobic camera work that focus on Saul and pushes much of the action aside whilst allowing horrific glimpses of the extermination process, gives us brave, innovative cinema. We are in the gas chamber with Saul, we are at the pits where there are mass shootings and we feel his desperation, his concentration on his goal to bury his son and his refusal to allow anything to deter him – even when it's clear that he's putting at risk the lives of his fellow prisoners in order to get what he wants. It is not clear, however, that the body is that of his son and for me there was a question about Saul's sanity – was this quest his way of dealing with the horror around him and surviving for as long as he did? How would any of us deal with finding ourselves in such a situation?

Throughout this frantic, noisy, disturbing film, Saul is constantly being pushed and shoved by those around him who are trying to make him conform, to forget his single-minded commitment to the burial. There is a brief moment near the end when he is being pushed and guided by a fellow prisoner who seems to be trying to help him, but there is no good outcome for these people. As one of them remarks earlier in the film – they are already dead.

This film is about the depths to which human behaviour can go, and for that reason it is an important film. We need to remember that these horrors happened, are still happening and will happen in the future. Son of Saul helps us to do that.

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