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Neo-Realist Nightmare: Laszlo Nemes’ Son Of Saul (2015) – Blu-ray review

June 27, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A rebuttal of modern cinema’s tendency to show everything, this chilling piece of immersion achieves its impact through Nemes’ stylistic restraint.

1 Son Of Saul

Son Of Saul
(Laszlo Nemes, 2015)

How do you film the Holocaust?  It’s an issue that has divided filmmakers and critics for decades; for every Spielberg, intent on using cinema to illuminate and educate by dramatizing the horrors, there’s a Claude Lanzmann, insistent that only testimony from those who were there carries any moral authority.

In Son Of Saul, Laszlo Nemes might have bridged the gap.  This is an unflinching portrayal of life at Auschwitz, focussed on the experiences of a Sonderkommando – the Jewish prisoners forced to assist with the disposal of the dead.  As Saul discovers a body he believes to be his son, he determines to give him a proper burial, rather than the bleak, mass disposal going on elsewhere.  It’d be relatively easy to see this story done in the style of Schindler’s List, but Nemes instead offers something altogether more disturbing and insightful.

Using a claustrophobic Academy frame, a shallow depth of field and smart use of off-screen sound, Nemes shows us only Saul’s face, but with the daily atrocities taking place, indistinct but unmistakable, in the background.  The effect is stark and somehow, by the gradual accumulation of half-seen detail, more impactful.  As a feat of direction, it is unmatched in recent years – an astonishing sense of logistical skill that is then surrendered in the name of a higher moral purpose.  When so many filmmakers tend to showboat in the clarity of high-definition digital, it is bordering on radical.

With it, Nemes has the licence to go far beyond other films about the Holocaust.  Having chosen such a durable form of self-censorship, Nemes doesn’t need to sugar-coat.  Perhaps nowhere else outside of documentaries such as Shoah do we get the sense of the industrialisation of the Holocaust; as monotonous and repetitive as any job but with the added burden of guilt placed by its nightmarish, soul-corroding nature.

So Saul’s quest becomes a Quixotic, even self-defeating, means to absolve that guilt, to find some little sense in the madness.  Nemes lets this take place during a (genuinely historical) uprising by Sonderkommando, so that we can judge the way that these men and women dealt with the impossible moral choices facing them. It’s a tribute to a group of people that many continue to tar as collaborators, but are here seen to each be fighting their small battles – from the mission to document the war crimes to Saul’s more spiritual quest.

The result is quite staggering.  For its sense of immersion alone, it is hard to shake off, especially during the latter stages, whose panicky long takes make it a credible thriller.  But Nemes’ determination to make us think and feel through every repercussion make this unmissable.

Son Of Saul is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 4 July.

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