Telluride 2015 Review: ‘Son of Saul’ Is A Powerful Film

Winner of the Jury Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Son of Saul does the seemingly impossible by framing the holocaust in a new light. It’s no less horrific, but Son of Saul is not about illuminating the atrocities of the Nazis. It is actually about hiding them as a coping mechanism for survival. 

Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a Sonderkommando, one of the Jews forced to work the gas chambers that are exterminating their own people. As long as he does this job, Saul can live, but when he finds a boy’s body, he thinks it is his own son’s. So Saul tries to arrange a proper Jewish burial, when others are just trying to survive. 

Director Laszlo Nemes films Son of Saul in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the way all films were before the invention of widescreen, but in today’s cinema it’s jarring. The shot remains tight on Saul, the background always out of focus, out of Saul’s view. This quite clearly represents Saul’s need to keep blinders up and focus on himself. 

But it seems like Nemes staged elaborate action in the background that we’re barely seeing. There are mass deaths and Nazi raids, but they’re out of focus. We can’t see past Saul, just like Saul compartmentalizes his job independently of the bigger picture. 

I’ve written a lot against handheld cinematography, but in Son of Saul the shakiness is all revolving around Saul. I never felt like it was artificially shaking to simulate disorientation, because it was part of an entire aesthetic that completely obscured Saul’s surroundings using several techniques. So it seems there are ways that this technique can win me over, at least if we’re already cutting off the sides of the frame and keeping the background out of focus. 

Son of Saul is also an espionage movie as we see secret meetings and power plays, payoffs and exchanges, or Saul holding secrets over a fellow prisoner. Saul is so matter of fact, even plotting his son’s burial with a Rabbi and Kaddish prayer, that his emotionlessness is what makes it emotional. Sure, there have been wonderful films about the suffering and tenacity of Holocaust victims, but to see how Saul manipulates the situation tactically makes us weep for the loss of feeling. 

70 years beyond the Holocaust, it now falls to cinema to create records of the experience so that it lives as a three dimensional reminder, never to become just a statistic in the history books. It can be difficult subject matter, and you couldn’t blame anyone for not wishing to relive it, but a movie like Son of Saul shows that it can be a rewarding dramatic experience as well as a reminder of why we must never let it happen again. 

Image via Sony Pictures Classics

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.