Son of Saul, film review: ‘Most brilliant Holocaust film since Schindler’s List’

A scene from Son of Saul

A scene from Son of Saul - Credit: Archant

The winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language is a Holocaust film. It’s also objectively, indisputably, as-clear-as-the-nose-on-your-face a brilliant piece of film making.

These two things rarely overlap, they probably haven’t since Schindler’s List.

Generally the ‘Holocaust film’ fails by coming at the subject with good intentions, sympathy and sorrow; Nazism scoffs at these higher emotions.

To make a Holocaust film worth the bother, you need to come at it with the same dark humour, bad taste, methodical organisation and demented fury that the Nazis put into it.

Son of Saul, more than any film you have seen previously, puts you inside Auschwitz in 1944.

Saul, a Hungarian Jew, is a Sonderkommando, the concentrate camp inmates drafted by the Nazis to work as cleaning units in the gas chambers (with grim irony, they are marked out by a red cross painted on their backs).

Fearing they themselves are to be exterminated next, the Sonderkommandos are preparing an escape plan. Saul, though, has become fixated with the body of a small boy from his home town in Hungary, and the idea of getting him a proper Jewish burial.

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As the film started, the projectionist realised that the screen was in the wrong frame and it was hastily narrowed into the correct 4:3 aspect, the box-like, almost square ratio of 20th century televisions.

It was an appropriate slip, emphasising the film’s reliance on a fierce and unrelentingly narrow focus.

The film’s way into the Holocaust is through a simple, but strikingly effective conceit. It starts with an out-of-focus shot, and out of the blur, the face of Saul (Röhrig) emerges.

From there, the whole film is framed around his face and head: events in the camp are seen in the background as he is pushed, hassled and scurried around.

It works brilliantly, because it expresses his powerlessness, the sense of being overwhelmed by the incomprehensible horror of it all. It also reflects Saul’s response, which is to close himself off, and focus in on himself and his own survival.

Auschwitz was such an affront to normality that it can only be processed in slithers.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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