Written by Nelson Cumming
I know people will groan when they hear the words “holocaust film”. To be fair, I sigh when I see movies who use the holocaust card for characters purely for sympathetic gain. Not Son of Saul. Son of Saul is not melodramatic nor is it evil. It is a unique piece of filmmaking that is not easy to sit through but watching it to the end is worth the reward.
With holocaust movies like Shoah and Schindler’s List, I sometimes ask “Is there any other story that could possibly be told about the Holocaust?” Son of Saul fills that void by going in a vastly different direction. Son of Saul relies on what we imagine not what we see.
Saul Alexander is a different character from most Jewish characters in Holocaust films. He is a member of the Sonderkommando, a Jewish worker who is forced to aid the disposal of gas chamber victims. The Nazi’s don’t want him dead, but they don’t want him at all.
I want to go into further detail but recounting the premise is technically a spoiler but also because it’s best you don’t know. There is a scene late in the film that reveals the story and explains why Saul does what he does. Up until that point, you are left wondering what Saul’s motivations are, but the scene is pivotal to the story.
The whole movie is showing from a mid-closeup view of the main character Saul Alexander. Everything else in the background is deliberately faded and fuzzy. Son of Saul relies on us, the viewer to imagine what is going on based on background sounds and Saul’s reactions to moments in the concentration camp.
This is when Son of Saul encourages us to paint the picture for ourselves. The whole movie is shot on a narrow frame with extreme close-ups of Saul the main character. Yes, the film delves into the inner workings of the concentration camp but because all the footage in the background is fuzzy and some important moments are offscreen, you can’t help but paint a picture of what happens. In all sincerity, it is like making your own movie.
Saul is not a man of heroism, nor is he a man of cowardice, he is a man of stoicism. His character does not tell us to feel sorry for the suffering, nor does he rile you up in his courage, he tells us what it is and to move along all the noise, all the panic, and all the hardship. Son of Saul tells us to go beyond holding to despair and sorrow. It tells us to leave with acceptance and that acceptance is not a sign of nihilism or flippancy but an act of humility.
As I have said, Son of Saul is not an easy watch, it does not leave you with an uplifting feeling, nor is it awe inspiring, it leaves you feeling that makes you better that you have watched it. It is unique both cinematically and thematically while telling a great, harrowing and poignant story. ****3/4