If, like Laszlo Nemes, you believe “Schindler’s List” to be too uplifting, take a peek at the writer-director’s Oscar-nominated “Son of Saul.” In his opinion, it’s the way the Holocaust should be depicted, brutal, disturbing and devoid of humanity. But to what end? What it is it he wants us to experience by taking us inside the gas chamber to hear the screams, see the bodies and smell the ashes? Sadness? Anger? Revulsion? Things we already feel at the mere mention of murder factories like Dachau and Auschwitz? Is he ghoulish, or just foolish to think that bringing unrelenting realism to the carnage would make it more urgent, more repugnant? I’d say a little bit of both.
Just compare his movie to “12 Years a Slave,” which also unflinchingly presented us with another holocaust of sorts in which humans were held captive and viciously robbed of the their freedom, dignity and ultimately their lives. But unlike Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, which touched every nerve in your body with its underlying heart, “Son of Saul” deals in nothing but hopelessness and dread – almost to the point of exploitation.
I say this because its premise is built upon the cheapest of ploys – the murder of a child, a prepubescent Hungarian boy who is the “Son” of the title. The protagonist, of course, is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, one of the prisoners granted privileges for assisting the Nazis with tricking his fellow Jews into the gas chamber and then burning and disposing of their bodies. He’s a bonafide “rat,” which made me dislike Saul from the start. I see him as a selfish coward devoid of integrity and principals. But Nemes, and his co-writer, Clara Royer, want us to see him as noble and desperate to hang on to his humanity through his mission to arrange for the boy to avoid the crematory and be granted a proper Jewish burial by a rabbi.
In other words, Nemes wants to have it both ways, showing Saul to be both a gutless betrayer and a humanitarian. Sorry, but I’m not buying it, mainly because Saul’s sudden change of heart fits too neatly into Nemes’ gimmick of giving us a behind-the-shoulder, day-in-the-life look at Auschwitz from the point of view of the Sonderkommando.
As far as gimmicks go, Nemes has devised an impressive one, placing cinematographer Matyas Erdely directly behind Rohrig’s Saul as he roams about the champ doing his daily routine of herding new arrivals off the trains into a holding facility, making them strip naked then leading them to the “showers.” After which, he and his fellow “workers” are charged with removing the bodies, mopping up the blood and rummaging for valuables in the clothing left behind.
To make us focus even more intently on Saul, Nemes films him in a 1:1.33 aspect, the screen size of an old cathode TV set. It allows us to see only what Saul sees as he intently looks ahead, eyes fixed. Meaning that all the horror is either offscreen or a blur on the periphery. It’s a pretty effective tool, more so when matched with the sounds of dozens of unseen people screaming and pounding on the door of the gas chamber begging to get out.
That part is powerful, and is sure to bring tears. But after a short while, Nemes filming style – whether it’s the resulting claustrophobia or Rohrig’s perpetually blank expressions – begins to lose its effectiveness, leaving the burden to fall on the storytelling, which, frankly, isn’t that compelling. After that earth-shattering opening inside the gas chamber, the tedium grows as the movie settles into Saul’s quest to retrieve the body of the boy – who may or may not be his real son – and search for a rabbi among the Sonderkommando. Not what you’d call scintillating cinema, a fact not lost on Nemes, who also tosses in a prisoner-revolt as an obvious means to prop up a sagging plot.
The film finally jumps the rails in a wild and weird third act that’s not only nonsensical, it’s an all-out attempt by Nemes to make sure everyone goes home seriously bummed.
Again, I repeat, what’s the point? You feel just as appalled by the Holocaust as you did walking in. Only now, you’re more likely to have nightmares over what you’ve seen. And I’m not talking just about Rohrig, whose day job is poetry. He may be dazzling with prose, but as Saul, he’s pretty much a cipher, unable to express any emotion or feeling. He could learn a few lessons from watching Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling doing the same wordless emoting in “45 Years.” As is, his Saul is as much a mystery as all the love the world’s critics have been showering on Nemes’ debut feature. It’s not a bad film, in fact it’s often very good, but it’s also obsequious in the way Nemes allows technique to continually trump emotion. He may be right about Spielberg’s sentimentality, but for me “Schindler’s List” will haunt me long after his “Saul” is forgotten.
SON OF SAUL
Cast includes Geza Rohrig. In Hungarian and German with English subtitles.
(R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.)