Son of Saul is a hard film to love. Not because of any faults but because of its subject matter. Set in Auschwitz, it follows Saul, a Sonderkommando who works with the bodies of the dead, as he tries to conduct a proper burial for his son. While this is going on, his fellow Sonderkommando are planning an escape from the horrifying conditions that they live in.
And debut director László Nemes does not shy away from those conditions. Son of Saul is shot nearly entirely from right up close to Saul (Géza Röhrig) meaning that you see everything he sees. It adds, even more, horror to the world around him as at times it fades into the background so we can focus on him. You get the impression that to everyone in this camp the dead bodies and their disposal has become so routine that they’ve had to block it out. But by taking it out of focus for the audience, it almost becomes more real. The times where a limb drops into shot almost nonchalantly rip at your very being.
Then there is the sound design which leaves you thinking that you have seen a lot more violence in this film than you actually have. From your viewpoint over Saul’s shoulder, you catch glimpses of people being gunned down or pushed into a pit but never enough to grasp a full picture. That doesn’t stop it being traumatic, though. Every incident is accompanied by the screams and horrifying sounds of the situation. There are moments where you feel like you are a part of the chaos and that is genuinely unsettling.
While there are other actors the film really does belong to Röhrig. Saul is a man who seems to have lost all hope. Even as he searches desperately for a Rabbi to help him bury his son there is hardly a flicker of emotion behind his eyes. He is possessed by a panic that means he has to do this but this world and the people that surround him have broken him.
Son of Saul is a powerful film, and it is one that I am glad I have seen. László Nemes has set himself up as a name that needs to be watched. However, I don’t know if I could ever sit through this film again. It was too powerful, and I came out feeling light headed from the exhaustion that it had inspired. This is a film that you should see. It is a film everyone should see, but don’t expect to enjoy it.