Review: SON OF SAUL

It’s awards season, and we all know what that means. Horror is often a genre that gets neglected at these ceremonies. But this year, the campaigns are pushing for a certain film in the Best Foreign Language category: the harrowing Hungarian tragedy, SON OF SAUL.

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I had the privilege of seeing this film a bit early. It’s been on my radar since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes this past May, for two reasons: it sounded very good, and it’s listed on IMDb as a horror film. Not that this has much to do with the actual movie, but it’s unusual to find that genre associated with an Oscar contender. But it makes perfect sense. It is NOT a traditional genre film, but “Son of Saul” horrified, disturbed and wrecked me in a way that no film has aside from maybe “Funny Games” and “Eraserhead.” It’s a brutal piece of dark art.

The story follows Saul, a Jewish man forced to burn bodies in Auschwitz, as he discovers what he believes to be the body of his son. As the other prisoners plot to rebel, Saul must stop at nothing to give his son a proper burial.

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Amidst a nightmarish mis en scene, this plot is brilliantly simple and raw. It examines unflinchingly the things a man will do to keep his humanity, and the way the dead can take precedence over the living. Screenwriting professors around the world will rejoice at the clear objective and the massive obstacles in his way. This is pure storytelling, and I can’t begin to say how effectively this tale is portrayed. While the audience knows nothing about Saul aside from his circumstances, his quest becomes vital, and the horror he witnesses is impossible not to feel. It helps, too, that Geza Rohrig – who plays Saul – gives a phenomenal and understated performance of pure desperation.

It is amazing to see a film that so basely and unglamorously uses cinematic techniques to evoke emotion. The cinematography is made up of unending tracking shots, rarely leaving the proximity of Saul’s face. The audience becomes a voyeur and participant. The horror is never dramatised, but it is always present, becoming even more damaging for its lack of trappings. Like the films of Michael Haneke or Krzysztof Kieślowski, “Son of Saul” portrays its human experiences in the most realistic way possible: simply by showing the viewer what they need to see.

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I want to point out, as well, that this is not a Holocaust film. Labelling it as such makes it seem like an awards-bait melodrama or a History channel special. This film is about people, their morals, and what happens when they face utter inhumanity. These themes are best explored, for this story, in the setting of Auschwitz. By avoiding the ‘history film’ tropes, this one actually portrays its subject with a remarkable amount of realism and respect. It is clear how much research and detail went into the production. For that reason, it is that much harder to look away.

Watching this film devastated me, and I say that as warning to the unsuspecting filmgoer – but it is an amazing experience as well. “Son of Saul” serves as a testament to the immense power of cinema and the universality of story. It is bleak, ruthless, and absolutely brilliant.

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