Son of Saul

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 14, 2016 in / No Comments


A disorienting, claustrophobic film that’s so impressively photographed that it’s difficult to endure, Hungarian director László Nemes’ “Son of Saul” transpires in the bowels of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, where the disquieting pleas of people being shuffled into gas chambers echo through its cold, dimly lit corridors. Their cries have become ambient noise to Saul Auslaender (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish Hungarian Sonderkommando who is forced to escort his own people to their deaths on a daily basis. It’s a job so unfathomably horrific that it has rendered Saul virtually numb to his surroundings, a sensation that DP Mátyás Erdély’s captures in a dizzying adhesion to Röhrig’s character. With a few exceptions, the horrors of his EP-150529507.jpg&MaxW=640&imageVersion=defaultenvironment are just out of focus, a foggy nightmare on the periphery of his chiseled visage that, while weary, still shows some sign of determination.

One day, after a routine extermination for which hundreds are stripped naked and filed to their deaths, a post-mortem anomaly draws the attention of several Dr. Mengele types to a young boy that Saul recognizes to be his estranged son. Desperate to save the body from twisted experiments and the eventual flames of the incinerator, Saul conspires with the coroner–a prisoner himself–in order to hide the body until he can locate a Rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial.

Between Nemes’ extremely harrowing story (which he co-wrote with first timer Clara Royer) and Erdély’s narrow perspective, which makes us feel like we’re swimming upstream through the gates of hell with blinders on, “Son of Saul” is often difficult to comprehend, both from an emotional and visual standpoint. No doubt this is the director’s intention, and one long take after another prove taxing to the nervous system. Nemes might spare us most of the graphic details of the atrocities occurring around Saul, but with no score, only sparse dialogue and chilling sound design, your imagination probably won’t be doing you any favors.

Where the film becomes almost unbearably tense is in the third act, when Saul’s attention is drawn to another matter: an uprising  developing among his compatriots (based on an actual event) requires his participation, and if he abandons his friends in order to tend to his son, he’ll essentially be jeopardizing their lives for someone who’s already dead. But Saul is clearly vested more in his faith than the corporeal, and while the film captures the inconceivably sickening reality of places like Auschwitz in as authentic a manner as I’d care to witness, it’s the central character’s unwavering conviction that Nemes clings to. “Son of Saul” demands at least one viewing, though many audiences will need a moment of decompression after being in such intimate proximity to Saul for 107 minutes. Röhrig’s performance is very affecting, and the film deserves an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Language Film. We’ll see when they announce at 8:30 this morning.

“Son of Saul” opens tomorrow at DC’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.


— M. Parsons


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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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