Son of Saul Review: Drama Within Normalized Horror

Photo Credit:http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/film/son-of-saul/

Son of Saul is tough. That fact should be obvious, it being a Holocaust film. But director Laszio Nemes has found a new way to make a tough Holocaust film.

Son of Saul isn’t based on a true story. This fictional story inside the very real concentration camps at Auschwitz is incredibly haunting, partially due to the film’s arresting style. The camera is often in an extreme close-up on the titular Saul (Geza Rohrig), following him from behind or in front to show us this is his story, not the camp’s. There are frequently horrific things happening around him, but it’s Saul’s lack of expression that puts the nail in the coffin. Besides a few micro-expressions, Saul remains stoic as people around him are starved, tortured, burned, etc. This is an every day occurrence for him to the point that he’s almost immune to it.

The story itself has Saul enlisting other prisoners, namely a rabbi, to help him bury his son, a body he recovered from a mass extermination that only vaguely resembles his son. Meanwhile, the prisoners know their own death is imminent and prepare to fight their way out of the camp. How these storylines cross and affect each others’ end results is pure screenwriting wizardry. The only thing getting in this film’s way is its oppressive style.

The handheld camera work definitely injects the film with a sense of realism that puts it above past Holocaust films, this one putting you directly into the camp. But the hard focus on Saul’s face becomes exhausting, as we try to piece together the terrors surrounding him. By the time we reach the film’s Children of Men style climax, we’ve just devolved into relentless shaky cam that doesn’t let up until the end credits. It makes for an intense but nauseating finale. If the style wasn’t so distracting, the emotional beats would have landed better.

Still, Son of Saul is undeniably powerful despite its annoying artistic choices. This is an excellent story grounded by a great performance from Rohrig. Frankly, it would be one of the best film’s of the year had it not gotten in its own way stylistically. But this is still a lot better than many of this year’s big awards dramas. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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