Friday, September 11, 2015

TIFF 2015: Son Of Saul

Son of Saul is a very intense view of the Holocaust from the point of view of a member of a concentration camp's Sonderkommando unit - the Jews who were put to work disposing of the bodies of prisoners killed in the gas chambers. The film begins with an out of focus shot that resolves after a bit on the face of Saul. Most of the film is shot over his shoulder and close-in, with much of the background action out of focus but recognizable. The dialogue is often choppy, with English subtitles for the Hungarian and German voices, often omitting subtitles for some of the background dialogue (perhaps an attempt to extend the out-of-focus technique?). Director László Nemes spoke at the screening, and said he was aiming to portray the horror of the Holocaust from an individual perspective. I found this cinematographic technique really powerful and it did support that goal; I think it made the point that the only way Saul could survive was to avoid recognizing what was happening around him, and just focus on his immediate task and surroundings. I've seen many films about the Holocaust and was prepared for this one to be grim and horrifying, but it was still shocking to see the brutality of mass murder shown in such detail, even out of focus in the background.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a young boy who somehow survives the gas chamber. While the Nazis take care of that mistake quickly enough, something about the boy makes Saul decide that it is his mission to make sure he is properly buried, including the appropriate prayers by a rabbi. He hides the body and searches among the camp inmates for a rabbi, taking many risks that could get him quickly killed It seems crazy that he is doing all this for a kid he doesn't even know (though at times in the film he claims the boy is his son). In fact it is crazy, but how could he not be crazy in that insane environment?

Son of Saul is a disturbing, intense and uncomfortable journey, with no happy ending. The director also said that he was a little tired of Holocaust films showing the perspective of a survivor when the truth is that the vast majority of those in the concentration camps did not survive. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes festival, and I can understand why. (In Hungarian and German with English subtitles.)

TIFF 2015 Overview

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