‘Son of Saul’
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Stars: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar
3 (out of 5) Globes
The first thing you notice in “Son of Saul” is the technique. Then you notice the horror. It shouldn’t be that way, not when the subject is the Holocaust and the setting is Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s, almost factually, a brilliantly made film. For his first feature, Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes doesn’t just borrow from the handheld realism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Two Days, One Night”) and long take master Bela Tarr, under whom he mentored. He expertly recreates it, fusing their styles to create a horrorshow whose carefully chosen images, with their play between background and foreground action, force the viewer into becoming an active participant.
Whether “Son of Saul” is brilliantly felt is another matter. Despite its obvious noble intentions, “Son of Saul” is narratively boilerplate, with a story cobbled together from other Holocaust tales we’ve seen time and time again. Our guide — and he really is a guide, since this is a tour close to the old, Walter Cronkite-narrated educational show “You Are There” — is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a haunted member of the Sonderkommando, the concentration camp units comprised of inmates forced, under threat of death, to aid in the disposal of their brethren. He tries not to look up as he shuffles past mass executions. His only distraction is a mission: He’s found a dead boy who may be his son, and he seeks to give him a proper, religious funeral.
It’s not too cynical to think Nemes calculated what would make a great (if not attention-nabbing) film, then did just that. Of course “Son of Saul” pushes its camera uncomfortably close to its haunted protagonist. Of course it has no score. Of course it’s shot in the super-restricting, boxy “Academy” aspect ratio. Of course it keeps the atrocities in the background of frames and out-of-focus, to mimic how Saul himself is trying to ignore them. (One thing that is surprising is how it avoids making long takes seem show-offy. Whereas “The Revenant” begs us to wow at how long it goes without a cut, Nemes, and his cinematographer, the great Matyas Erdely, don’t let their mere 85 shots, over 107 minutes, go over the four-minute mark. They instead seem like comparative bursts of exactitude.)