The film opens out of focus. From the depth comes a figure walking toward the camera. All of a sudden, Saul is in focus and the camera stays with him for the entirety of László Nemes’ masterpiece, “Son of Saul”.
The film takes place in 1944 at Auschwitz, just about year before the camp’s liberation. The film follows Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando (the Jews that were forced by the Nazi’s to assist with the disposal of other Jews at the camp), and his quest to bury the body of a young boy he pulled from the gas chamber, that he has taken as his son. Immediately, the film feels very personal and more a story about a man, versus a film about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is more a catalyst for Saul’s story, unlike many other films in which the Holocaust is its main subject.
One thing that also separates “Son of Saul” from other Holocaust films is the director, László Nemes, does not put the horrors and atrocities in the light. Rarely ever does the viewer actually bare witness to the events taking place. This is due to the brilliant and gorgeous cinematography by Mátyás Erdély and the wonderful choice to shoot this film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The film is also shot entirely on a 40mm lens, really giving this film a closed in feel and a shallow depth of field surrounding our character. This quite literally puts the viewer in Saul’s shoes. Not only that, but it helps to make the viewer feel as lost and trapped as Saul is.
“Son of Saul” would have never succeeded, however, without a brilliant performance leading the film. Thankfully, first time actor, Géza Röhrig, does just that. His performance is certainly one of the best of the year if not of the past decade. He speaks little words in the film, but conveys every bit of emotion through his expressions and body language. The audience can completely identify and empathize with his character and strangely enough, Röhrig makes it feel as if the character knows the audience is there with him. That being said, he is not the only actor in the film that really takes it home. The entire ensemble deliver very real and raw performances that only enhance that of the lead character and the subject matter the film is dealing with.
Throughout this film, an invisible presence can be felt; and I believe that is the presence of writer/director, László Nemes. Nemes handles the characters and subject matter with such care, one would assume he has made thousands of films in the past. It is even more impressive to know that this is his first feature film. All the artistic choices he makes in “Son of Saul” put this film in a category all its own. Not one element is overshadowed by another and not a second of screen time is wasted. The man truly knows how to structure a film and give it just the right amount of everything that is cinema. Nemes clearly cares about the Holocaust and preserving its history, but he also cares about Saul, which in turn delivers a truly powerful and moving film.
“Son of Saul” is not only the best film of 2015, it is one of the best films ever made. Not to sensationalize it but, with all the elements of this film working in tandem, one can’t help but want to reach into the screen and try to do something to stop the horror that is the Holocaust. From the films opening frame to its last poignant moment, it’s clear that László Nemes has something to say, and he speaks volumes with his masterpiece.