‘Son Of Saul’ – Film Review

A multi-award-winning experience of what it’s like to live in constant fear, from rookie Hungarian director László Nemes

Son of Saul has been scooping up prizes for months, from the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars. That makes for a lot of expectation, which it wholly meets.

We’re thrown immediately into the horrors of World War II, following Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He isn’t a normal prisoner but part of the Sonderkommandos, a group of men put to work by the soldiers disposing of the gassed dead and looting their pockets for gold. When they’ve served their purpose, they too will be killed.

The first we see of Saul, he’s dodging between frightened, naked people as they’re ushered into a gas chamber from which they won’t return. His face is blank. He doesn’t meet any eyes. He betrays nothing. Then, after the screams, among the corpses he finds a boy. This is his son, he tells another prisoner, and he’ll bury him – not see him burned.

So begins a dangerous quest to give dignity to the dead, while around him the living secretly plan an uprising. That director László Nemes tells these two stories in tandem, the narratives criss-crossing smoothly, is impressive. That this is his directorial debut is nothing short of astonishing. Nemes’ control never falters. He has the camera hug Saul’s shoulder almost throughout the film, so the frame is almost entirely filled with his face. Background detail is mostly a blur and the effect is to pull you in conspiratorially, sharing in the prisoners’ secrets and Saul’s panic, but also to never let us get our bearings.

We tear through the camp like running round the nine circles of hell, rarely clear exactly what’s going on around us unless it’s happening immediately next to Saul. It makes for an uncomfortable, dizzying watch, but it should be. If the intention is to give us even a fleeting experience of what it could have been like to live in constant fear, hoping for a breath of humanity in a life shaped by evil, then it has achieved that entirely.