Son of Saul is a film about the Holocaust. I knew this walking in, and my expectations were set for one thing: this is gonna be hard to watch. I was right. There was also a question I was asking myself: What does this movie have to offer besides being a film which agrees that the Holocaust is bad? (Which I hope is something that we can all agree on.) Luckily, Son of Saul offers a whole lot.
Son of Saul follows Saul, a Sonderkommando during the Holocaust. A Sonderkommando was a Jew who was forced to help clean up gas chamber victims after their deaths, on threat of their own lives, and would eventually be killed after a few months of work, as explained in text before the action starts. After a couple months, he finds a young boy’s body, who may or may not be his son. (The movie leaves it up to us to decide and gives us hints of both.) The film follows Saul’s journey to give a proper burial to the carcass, including finding a rabbi to give funeral rites, instead of letting his body become like the rest of the victims.
The Holocaust is one of the most awful events in human history. Every single person who has been through middle school knows about it, and director-writer László Nemes knows this. We all know what's going on when those doors shut for Jews to "shower," and instead of showing us this in an excessive, violent fashion, he focuses on the effects it has on our protagonist, Saul. This the reason why this film stands out among a wave of Holocaust films; Nemes respects his audience to determine what is happening by themselves. Instead of dialogue and exposition, we get silence and subtlety. The fantastic direction is unforgiving, like the Holocaust was, and is filmed in a box-like aspect ratio, never leaving Saul's perspective. Because of it, the movie feels claustrophobic, but that’s the point. The close-up nature never feels excessive.
The performances in this film are remarkable. Géza Röhrig as Saul is worthy of an Oscar. He somehow captures a man bottling up his emotions and hatred inside, and the obsession with burying his "son" properly. This is most definitely his movie, and I never wanted to see anyone else. And despite Saul being the main character, I always felt he could die at any second. Since the movie is mainly filmed over his shoulder, you can always see a red "X" on his back. He is marked for death. It's just a matter of when and where. The writing here also helps set up the hatred, with the Nazis referring to the decaying carcasses they are about to burn as "pieces" or "it," refusing to acknowledge the Jew's humanity. The editing even helps. Most times, a scene will finish quietly and cut straight into a chaotic one, or vice versa. This keeps the movie flowing, and keeps you engaged in it.
Most of all, though, the little details help here to set up the story. There are moments throughout the film that tell the greater story. For an example, a man asks Saul to "clean," referencing a table, and it takes Saul a second to understand what he's asking, because there aren't bodies around. He can’t understand what’s he saying for a second. The ending here is also very interesting, going for an ambiguous approach that keeps you on the edge of your seat, savoring the details until the credits start, with a haunting soundtrack playing beneath them.
Son of Saul is a Holocaust film, but it stands out from the bunch. It's very well made, the acting is fantastic, the subtlety lets you think for yourself, and it doesn't feel excessive in making you feel uncomfortable. When my biggest gripe with a movie is that once or twice the camera got very shaky and it distracted me from the experience, I have to know that I'm watching something incredible, and that's exactly what Son of Saul is.