We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Saul fia / Son of Saul, 2015
Grand Prix – László Nemes
Vulcan Award – Tamás Zányi (sound designer)
Prix François Chalais
There’s a common tendency to focus heavily on numbers when discussing the Holocaust. 8 million murdered. Piles of shoes and glasses, stacks of empty suitcases. Millions of paper clips, as we see in the 2004 documentary of the same name. But those numbers are so mind-bogglingly massive that they’re rendered functionally meaningless.
Son of Saul, the 2015 debut film by Hungarian director László Nemes, succeeds in large part because it doesn’t try to tackle the entire sweeping tragedy of the Holocaust, instead focusing on one man’s experience in a concentration camp over the span of less than two days.
Saul Auslander (played by the powerfully expressive Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a special work unit at Nazi concentration camps who were given the grisly task of maintaining the functional system of mass murder. We watch as he mechanically helps prepare a group of victims for execution, sifting through their belongings to search for valuables and finally removing the bodies from the gas chambers. The eerie routine of it all makes it clear that this is not the first time they’ve all been forced to do this, and Saul’s face is a mask, emotionally distanced from the horror that surrounds him.
Then there’s a young boy carried out of the gas chamber, still choking but not quite dead yet. He is not Saul’s son, but he could be. After the boy is smothered by the attending doctor, Saul becomes obsessed with the idea of giving him a proper Jewish burial. Under extraordinary and horrifying circumstances, this quest allows him to reconnect with some part of his humanity, long stifled as a survival mechanism.
“Sonof Saul is an intensely intimate experience.”
It’s remarkable that this is the first film from László Nemes, as he judges perfectly how a story like this should be told visually. Son of Saul is an intensely intimate experience – the camera is almost never a couple of feet from actor Géza Röhrig’s face. We are with him every moment, as he goes about the chilling monotony of his daily tasks, all emotions subdued. Even the prospect of helping the members of his unit plan an act of resistance feels somehow muted. It’s only as his search for a rabbi to say the Kaddish at the boy’s burial becomes more frenzied that sparks of energy return to Saul. The boy’s death has returned some aspect of life to Saul, finding in it a reason to carry on in spite of everything.
Géza Röhrig deserves all the accolades in the world for his work as Saul in this film. He is able to do so much with so little, and evokes a strong reaction despite limited dialogue and sparse action. We are able to emotionally connect with him even as he is unable to emotionally connect with himself, which speaks to his skill as an actor.
Nemes presents to us the idea that the source of humanity is in action, making choices and asserting agency over one’s own life. As a member of the Sonderkommando, doomed to carry out repetitive tasks complicit in murder, waiting in dread for the day when they themselves are sent to the gas chambers, it’s all too easy to become detached from humanity. But the actions that Saul takes, particularly in the latter half of the film — stealing the boy’s body, working with the resistance, searching for a rabbi to perform a burial ritual that would almost certainly get them killed — are incredibly powerful. These allow him to reclaim part of what makes him feel like an actual person, which is as much an act of rebellion against the Nazi regime as anything else could be.