SON OF SAUL (2015, László Nemes)
I was about to say that this film is excruciating torture to sit through, but then I realized how insipid that sounds. You know what’s excruciating torture? Concentration camps. This movie experience involves sitting in a cushy reclining chair at a movie theater for two hours, sipping a cup of coffee and feeling good about not needing to pay for parking meters in Los Angeles on Christmas Day.
Okay but compared to other films, this is an extraordinarily difficult sit. I wanted to bail multiple times, but stuck it out due to the sheer impressive directing chops on display. It’s hard to assign a rating to this movie because of the whipsaw of emotions at play: it’s remarkably well done, it conveys its themes beautifully, and yet the godawful horrors go from stomach-churning to numbing indifference.
Generally, I like when a film viscerally evokes the genre it’s employing. I like my horror movies blood-curdling (meaning not necessarily gory; though they can be — I mean unhinged to inspire the most dread, as in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, WOLF CREEK, or THE DESCENT), I like my action movies supersonic (give me FURY ROAD over TAKEN), and I guess I like my holocaust movies unrelentingly evil and bleak — which is why I’ll take THE GREY ZONE over 20 SCHINDLER’S LISTs. That puts SON OF SAUL right up my alley, though I didn’t shed a single tear (the way I sobbed uncontrollably at THE GREY ZONE). It’s too clinical to be sentimental.
So, enough generalizations: the use of narrow depth-of-field lenses to keep the focus on Saul isn’t just show-off and budget-saving (though it’s those things too); it creates a certain perspective and enlightens us whenever the camera does focus on someone or something else. At times the narrative is difficult to follow and motivations are muddled. We’re following a growing resistance among the Sonderkommando as it unfolds, but it’s concealed so well that even in front of Saul’s face we’re unsure of who’s doing what. Morality is clouded, goals are finite, and terror is a constant. But even though this is grueling to endure, it’s not done just to tell us that the camps were grueling — that much is obvious; it’s done to raise the questions of just how much you can do to assert yourself during your final days. How much or how little actually matters when pure evil is smeared on your hands every minute. How your frame of reference changes. How fickle life and death is. And how pointless it all will be, forever. Yet even in this wretched swamp of hostile inhumanity, our hero (played to near perfection by Géza Röhrig) not only looks out for the young (both dead and alive, both Jewish and Nazi) but he can do it with a smile on his face of the utmost sincerity.
I never wish to sit through this professionally efficient, gut-wrenching exploration of existential dread ever again, but I think it might be terrific.