Son of Saul review

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby Mister Tee » Sun Jan 24, 2016 4:45 pm

My read of the reviews for Son of Saul had me thinking it'd be a candidate for directing prizes; now seeing the film has only accentuated that feeling. This is a film that, above all, finds a new way of seeing -- every moment of the film, I was aware of a director's hand, making me watch semi-familar material with utterly fresh eyes. Maybe the film is too out there even for the AMPAS directors, but it seems shameful to me that the members of the once-hip National Society of Film Critics found Tom McCarthy's direction of Spotlight more impressive.

This very distinctive directing style -- set in the opening shot, with 90% of the frame blurred and only Saul in focus -- is not just a vanity choice; it tells us the film is going to be singularly devoted to this one man's view of what's going on in this chaotic circumstance. As BJ says, it recreates what likely WAS most people's experience in the camps -- your own survival and the small circle in which you moved was presumably all you could afford to focus on. But it also sets the underlying theme of the film: in such a horrific and confusing situation, what is the responsibility of the individual -- simply one's own survival (even, in this case, at the cost of collaboration with evil), or is there some duty to band together, to possibly sacrifice for the survival of the group? (Even, given the film's ultimate outcome, if that banding together doesn't yield results.)

The film, very much like Birdman, feels as if it's done in one continuous shot; even what time lapses there are seem to pass quickly and unnoticed. Meanwhile, the film works in a way that assumes our full knowledge, from earlier films, of what went on in the Holocaust, so it can afford to keep to Saul's limited vision -- as, for instance, when the arriving internees are stripped of their clothing and sent into the showers, and we so well know what's actually going on that Nemes can skip over it and jump right to the clean-up afterward: Saul's job.

(SPOILERS HERE) A film simply concentrating on this -- the day-to-day life grind of the much-denounced Sonderkommando -- would have been compelling enough, but Nemes and company lift things to a new level with the plot line centered on Saul's (maybe) son. The film goes to great lengths to cast doubt on whether the dead boy actually is Saul's son -- whether he even has a son. And there's much doubt/contradiction about other elements -- are any of these rabbis actually rabbis? It makes one wonder if the whole thing is a fever-dream of Saul's: is he so addled by being in the camp, and playing such a morally compromised role, that he invents this throwback to his religious upbringing -- getting a proper religious internment for even an imagined child -- as a way to assuage his conscience? Like BJ, I can't say I'm completely confident I know what the film "meant" at every moment; I'm not certain why Saul seems so soothed by the sight of the fair-haired boy at the end (though I could probably make an interpretation argument). But I was more than enough compelled by the film's force and sweep that I was willing to grant it its ambiguities for the artistic richness it offered.

I'm not 100% sure others will feel the same, and by "others" I mean the voting members of the Academy. The Holocaust setting has of course historically helped films in the foreign language category, but the film didn't quite get the "this is the year's clear choice" endorsement from critics that dws1982 suggested (and the way Ida did). Some may be put off by exactly what so engaged me -- the film's innovative style -- and look elsewhere (I hear people citing Mustang, which I've yet to see). Win or not, it's a singular artistic experience, and for me one of the year's best efforts.

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby The Original BJ » Wed Nov 11, 2015 6:25 pm

It's interesting that you use the word "distant" to describe Son of Saul, Precious Doll, because I overheard a woman leaving my screening last night using the exact same word. I'm more in line with Okri though, in thinking it was a very gripping piece of work that had really knocked me out emotionally by the end.

The most notable element of the movie is its style, with a very Dardennes-like handheld camera that focuses pretty closely on the face of its protagonist throughout nearly the entirety of its running time. For me, this made the film feel the opposite of a distant experience -- I was so drawn into the precise ways in which Saul was experiencing the horrors of his situation, so connected to his face, that so little of the movie felt like it was happening at any kind of remove. The Academy ratio is also a pretty crucial element of the movie, because it essentially boxes in much of the frame so we can only see bits and pieces out from around Saul's head. And yet these images are all the more startling for only being seen at the periphery -- piles upon piles of corpses are just the kind of thing you'd get used to seeing in a concentration camp, and the way the film captures the ever-presence of death in such an off-hand manner makes for a very chilling experience.

I also don't think I've ever seen a movie that so startlingly captured the chaos within concentration camps. At certain points, I admit that I didn't always understand exactly what I was seeing, or who Saul was speaking with, but isn't that also kind of the point? Does Saul comprehend everything he's experiencing either? Or does at some point the cacophony of contradicting orders, random executions, and exhaustion over just trying to stay alive start to feel like a descent into a frighteningly monotonous madness? I assume most people will find the sequence in which Saul tries to find the rabbi to be the zenith of the film's horrors, and it's magnificently staged, with Saul trying to accomplish the twin goals -- seemingly at odds -- of saving the rabbi and saving himself, amidst a backdrop of unimaginable carnage.

In many ways, that scene crystallizes what the movie is about -- a man who, in the face of an incomprehensible situation, must try to pretend that what is happening around him is not happening, so that he may preserve some semblance of rational order. And he is willing to go to seemingly insane depths -- even putting his own life in great jeopardy -- to accomplish the seemingly meaningless (given the context) task of preserving a proper burial for his boy. Other films have explored the subject of Jews who aided the Nazis, but I don't think I've ever seen a movie explore the moral quandaries of someone in Saul's situation with such a level of bleak absurdity before, taking such a specific situation and using it so brutally as metaphor for much larger global tragedy.

It's to the movie's credit that it doesn't attempt to answer the question it raises -- whether or not Saul is doing the RIGHT thing, as if there could even be a right thing in such a catastrophic situation as this. I would be very interested to hear people's interpretations of the last few shots, specifically in terms of what they feel the little boy represents, and what Saul's reaction to him conveys -- I haven't really gathered my thoughts yet on what I think all of that meant, and would love to hear any thoughts from folks when they see it.

I imagine this will be a pretty strong contender not only for foreign film prizes, but also first feature awards, because this is a very powerful, impressively mounted debut film.

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby Precious Doll » Sat Nov 07, 2015 8:03 am

dws1982,

I think the points you raise are very valid. I'm sure that Son of Saul will make the shortlist but the final five may be a bit of a challenge depending on what else is selected. The Academy has also thrown some really left field candidates even before the changes to the voting system (i.e. Dogtooth).

Certainly the critical acclaim for Son of Saul gives it a huge advantage as with the exception of a couple of other films, nothing submitted comes close Saul's acclaim.
"I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don't think that's right…It's gotten very quiet in here, but that's true." Susan Sarandon on Woody Allen, Cannes Film Festival 2016

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby dws1982 » Sun Nov 01, 2015 5:23 pm

I feel like the new system helps a film like Son of Saul, because the voting pool isn't limited strictly to Academy members who go to screenings. If it runs away with the critics voting, it'll be assumed to be the frontrunner, and a lot of lazy voters will just rubber-stamp it on their ballot. I don't think something like The Great Beauty would've ever won under the must-see-all-five system, but it was perceived as a frontrunner, and the voters went along.

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby Okri » Wed Oct 28, 2015 6:38 pm

The reviews have been astounding, though, and I'd really question if people will feel distanced from the movie. I thought it was utterly remarkable and it hit me like a tonne of bricks.

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Re: Son of Saul review

Postby Precious Doll » Wed Oct 28, 2015 7:38 am

Most people, myself included, have been declaring Son of Saul as the sure bet for Foreign Language Film, sight unseen.

Now having seen it I'm far less inclined to think so. The film unfolds very much at arm's length and a good half of it is shoot from the back of the head of the leading man with the hand held camera work barely ceasing it's movement for the 107 minute running time.

It's greatest strength is it's original take on the Nazi death camps, presented in a way never seen before. But I also felt like a distant observer and the film never touched me, even in it's one sentimental moment very late in the piece. It's also surprisingly no where near as gruelling as I thought it was going to be.

The best thing about the film is the sound design which is incredible and I cannot imagine better work in this area. Sadly it will be overlooked for the usual Hollywood big budget extravagant epics in the sound related awards.

Lead actor Géza Röhrig hasn't a hope in hell of an acting nomination and frankly doesn't deserve consideration even it what appears to be shaping up us a very weak year (I'm not even interested in seeing Steve Jobs or Black Mass and will only watch them should they actually receive nominations).

It will take the Foreign Language committee to probably get this into the short-list of 9 films and depending what the other nominees are will help determine if Son of Saul makes the final five and the award itself.

Of the seven films I have seen so far of the 60+ films submitted for the Foreign Language Oscar I really feel with the new voting process that if Rams from Iceland is nominated against Son of Saul that Rams will triumph as the winner. I imagine there are a number of other films that would as well. Son of Saul is no sure bet the way A Separation, Amour & Ida where and they all had there doubters.
"I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don't think that's right…It's gotten very quiet in here, but that's true." Susan Sarandon on Woody Allen, Cannes Film Festival 2016

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Son of Saul review

Postby Reza » Fri May 22, 2015 5:58 am

Son of Saul review: an outstanding, excoriating look at evil in Auschwitz
5 / 5 stars

This astonishing debut film, about a prisoner in the concentration camp employed in the industrial processes of body disposal, is a horror movie of extraordinary focus and courage

Peter Bradshaw - The Guardian
Friday 15 May 2015


A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers – as well as an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a drama. There is an argument that any such work, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be levelled at Son of Saul.

By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is remarkable. Director László Nemes’s film has the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See – which surely inspired its final sequence – and perhaps of Lajos Koltai’s Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom Nemes was for two years an assistant, but without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is concerned at some level with exerting a conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.

Son of Saul is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, and one Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Géza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given humiliating and illusory privileges as trusties, with minor increases in food ration in return for their carrying the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burned, then carting the ashes away to be dumped. The task is carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating rate around the clock, as the Allies close in. Among the dead, Saul discovers the body of his young son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give the boy a proper burial in secret, using pleas, threats, blackmail and bribes – with jewellery (called the “shiny”) that he steals from the bodies – to achieve his aim. Saul’s desperate mission is carried out with the same urgent, hoarse whispers and mutterings as another plot in progress: a planned uprising, which Saul’s intentions may upset. And all the time, the Sonderkommando are aware, through this network of whispers, that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.

For most of the film, Nemes shows us Saul’s agonised face, in a shallow focus, tracked through long takes, with the surrounding and background details often left blurred or indistinctly glimpsed: a muzzle flash, a uniform, a naked body. Sometimes we see his back, with the red X marked on his jacket to indicate his status. His is a face from which all emotion appears to have been scorched away – it looks like the face of a pterodactyl. This, the film appears to be saying, is what the face of a survivor looks like, and indeed what the face of a non-survivor looks like: a dehumanised face. And yet Saul is to show another expression in the film’s final moments. In a way, this is how Nemes finesses the aesthetic or ethical question of how to create an individual drama within the horror, how to show and yet not show the horror itself: with intense, constrained focus.

One of the most devastating and deeply shocking aspects of Son of Saul is that it begins with a gas chamber scene; another film might have opted to end with this kind of scenario, or to finish just before showing it. Nemes’s film allows us to grasp only belatedly that this is what is happening – we glimpse it at the edge of the frame which is largely dominated by Saul’s face. Prisoners are stripped and herded as if part of an industrial process of evil: the Nazi officers are all the time tricking and pacifying them with nonsense about how they are to be fed, clothed and used as craftsmen. And the awful truth is the presence of the Sonderkommando, helping to superintend this business and to hoodwink and reassure. It is a theatre of pure evil, all but unwatchable.

Everything has to be hidden: in a way, the drama is hidden as well. Another reason for Nemes’s closeup procedure is that we, the audience, have to get in close to hear the conspiracy. A rare outburst comes when Saul confronts another prisoner at the lakeside where the ash is being disposed of, an exchange that results in an anguished attempt at suicide, a moment that finds its own heartstopping narrative echo in the last sequence. And it also results in a more familiar wartime-drama scene as a hatchet-faced SS officer, making sneering remarks about the elegance of the Hungarian language, attempts to interrogate the prisoners about what has just gone on: rather similar, in fact, to Ralph Fiennes’s icy character in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. But Nemes calmly controls the juxtaposition of this traditional dialogue scene with the rest of the wordless inferno.

Son of Saul appears at a moment when the debate about cinema and the Holocaust has been revived with the restoration of Sidney Bernstein’s all-but-lost explicit official documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall, the documentary about the way in which this film was conceived and then nervously suppressed after the war.

Jean-Luc Godard believed that cinema’s essential failure was that it did not document the Holocaust in the hope of preventing it. In our time, Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah is widely considered the most aesthetically successful approach because of the honesty and clarity of its testimony, which has no need for the (potentially facile) mechanisms of drama. Nemes’s film has found a way to create a fictional drama with a gaunt, fierce kind of courage – the kind of courage, perhaps, that it takes to watch it.


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