Son of Saul: Horrific, Compelling Holocaust Drama

The real discovery of the 2015 Cannes Film Fest is Laszlo Nemes’ horrifying holocaust drama, Son of Saul, a most striking feature debut and the only first film to be in the prestigious competition series.

As if defying the claim that the hell of the Holocaust cannot be captured responsibly or represented visually, Nemes has found a way to convey the hellish experience of the concentration camps via the obsession of a single man, Saul, a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau circa late in 1944, who seems to be motivated by one goal, arranging for the proper but impossible burial of a young boy that he claims is his son (thus the title).

I have requested the production notes for this remarkable feature and all I got is a brief biography of the writer-director, Nemes, who is 38 and served as assistant to the acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker, Bela Tarr (whose “The Man from London” played in Cannes in 2007).

I have no doubts that this most assured debut, an original if depression addition to Holocaust films, will travel the fall festival road to Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Fests.

As expected the account is relentlessly grim and emotionally impactful, even if the narrative is short in depicting motivation and characterization (by design), co-written by Nemes and Clara Royer.

The protagonist, Saul, is unlike any you have seen in the growing body of films about the Holocaust, a middle-age Hungarian Jew who “works” with a Sonderkommando at the camp. His job consists of making preparations for groups of new arrivals, including. Later on, Saul and his mates have to remove the bodies and clean up the walls and floors in preparation for the next group.  The killing machine seems to be operating smoothly and efficiently.

Rather smartly and sensitively, Nemes has chosen to keep most of the violent off screen by taking what could be described as an understated and discreet yet factual approach, grounded in the day to day realities of the camp.  Occasionally we do glimpse as naked bodies and hear screams as numerous men are led to their death in the gas chambers.

Most of the events are observed from the subjective POV of Saul, who elicits our empathy from his very first appearance, and that he is played by a terrific actor (also making his screen debut), who bears resemblance to the young John Cassavetes, contributes immeasurably to the emotional impact of the various moral dilemmas and practical problems he is facing and needs to resolve in order to execute his single-minded obsession. Saul is a man on a mission, willing to risk his life and that of others, so that he can find meaning in this Godforsaken existence, not to mention redemption for past events that become clearer later on.

The young boy, who has survived the gas chamber, is put to death, but Saul will not allow him to be cut open  by the doctors, as the official rules dictate.  For the duration of the tale, Saul is desperate to find a rabbi who will grant the boy a proper funeral, a task which his fellow workers think is not only foolishly unrealistic but also downright dangerous, especially at a time in which they are actively engage in planning a prisoner uprising.

A longer review will be published later