Cannes 2015: Son Of Saul Review - The Holocaust From A New Angle

Bleak, depressing and ingenious.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜…˜… The opening of Son Of Saul is one of the best moments in Holocaust cinema ever. Starting with an out-of-focus shot of two figures against a tree, Géza Röhrig's Saul walks into frame and, in one long take constantly in close-up with the background still heavily softened, leads the camera around the scene of Jews newly arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Sonderkommado - a Jew who assists the Nazis in their exterminations - he shepherds the new arrivals into a gas chamber, before standing against the door as the crowd's babble turns into screams, then desperate banging, all before the room goes depressingly quiet. A totally unique sequence with a disturbing matter-of-factness to proceedings. When you're setting the bar so high with such unfiltered vision, it's only natural that the rest of the film is going to struggle to live up to it. But while Saul Fia never quite matches the visceral awe of those two shots (this is a movie of long takes), director Laszlo Nemes (like his star new to the world of feature filmmaking) manages to get around it by taking the audience on a totally different journey. Instead of being the only moment of worth, the opening is actually getting the full horror of the Holocaust and the work of the Sonderkommandos established and all the related emotions wrought from them so the film can go on a much more personal, rarely before covered route. Early on, Saul becomes obsessed with the body of a young boy suffocated by an SS officer after surviving the gas chamber. Consumed by a desire to give the child a proper Jewish burial, complete with a Rabbi-delivered sermon, he begins to waylay plans he and other Sonderkommandos have of escaping the camp. Quite why he's so driven by this one child is never explicitly stated, but it's his determination in the face of sheer impossibility that the film is concerned with. That distinct shooting style from the opening - a constant close-up, almost always on Saul, with the background permanently obscured - is impressively carried throughout, leading to very long takes where Röhrig's always on screen (or at least partially in the frame). Keeping the attention completely on Saul and obscuring everything else allows full investment in his vaguely motivated mission, and has the extremely interesting side effect of numbing the audience to the the evil surrounding them (trainloads of Jews arrive and the Nazis begin executing them en masse). If that sounds flippant to one of the greatest tragedy in human history, rest assured its effect is quite the opposite. In fact, it is the film's masterstroke - a haunting representation of how, for a time, this practice was deemed acceptable (even if sometimes it leads to a bit too much self-involved meandering). Emotive distance doesn't meant the film skimps on its accuracy though. Taking on a lesser known side of the Holocaust, there's a lot of minute details of life within the concentration camps well observed and subsequently realised. But, as this is Saul's journey, right down to the perspective, they're hidden in the background, proof that the minimalistic shooting technique hasn't been used as a cinematic shortcut. Movies about the Holocaust face some difficult creative dilemmas. The event is so indescribably horrific that it's almost too tempting to just use the innate aching sadness as an emotional crux, while it's been so well covered in cinema anyway that a new movie can often feel like it's merely going back over old ground. Son Of Saul succinctly deals with both of these by keeping its focus tight, both figuratively and literally, earning a thematic richness that more than makes up for a sometimes irritating distance.

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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.