It is my intention to bring you all five Best Foreign Language Film nominees, from this past 88th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, over the next five weeks. And what better way to begin, then with the winner from Hungary, the bleak, disturbing, harrowing “Son of Saul”. There’s much to admire here. For example the oblique distance that first time feature director, Laszlo Nemes maintains, when presenting some of the more horrific scenes. It’s a very wise choice, considering that full front focus would’ve made powerful images too much to take. They are unforgettable even when peering askance. And an amateur actor (who’s really a poet) in the lead role? Geza Rohrig does wonders with his facial expressions alone. It’s a remarkable performance.
Saul Auslander is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. As a member of the Sonderkommando, Saul is forced to dispose of the bodies of the gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. Though his job is a horrendous one, it does offer him some more freedom, as far as moving about the camp, then is afforded to other captives. One day, a young boy emerges from the death “showers” barely breathing…but alive. Saul looks on with special attention while a Nazi doctor suffocates the child until he dies. Remaining impassive, as always, Saul is positive the now deceased young man is his “illegitimate” son, from a past relationship. So, Saul makes it his mission to give the body a proper Jewish burial. Of course, his honorable intentions do come with a price.
There is a tremendous amount of patience and confidence brought to this feature, considering the absence of pedigree of the man behind the camera. And Mr. Nemes also co-wrote the thoughtful screenplay, with Clara Royer. Some are bound to think at this point, that holocaust films have become all too familiar, and that there is a built in barrier against harsh criticism. And maybe that’s not completely unfair. In fact, there’s essentially only one way to go by the film’s finale. But don’t judge this without experiencing it, because it finds new avenues to travel. It’s certainly a difficult watch–but it is rewarding viewing this dramatic quest unfold. And the bulk of the task falls on the shoulders of Mr. Rohrig as Saul. “Son of Saul” attacks a familiar history with a unique perspective.