Right from its conception, Son of Saul is a difficult and problematic film to make. Set entirely within Auschwitz at the height of Nazi power, writer-director László Nemes had the distinct problem of doing justice to the atrocity of the situation and the horrifying acts that took place there, yet as an entertainer ran the risk of exploiting that tragedy for the sake of his art. It’s a lose-lose scenario that he attempts to solve by placing the camera almost always on his protagonist; we rarely catch a direct glimpse of the horrors of Auschwitz, but we are constantly reminded by the sounds of genocide lingering just outside the frame. However, I’m not entirely convinced that solving that problem makes for a great film, despite an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The titular Saul is a Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner forced into slave labor in order to keep the death camp operational, primarily to dispose of the bodies of his people. One day in the morgue, he comes across a child whom he recognizes as his son, and he decides that the best thing he can do for the child is give him a proper Jewish burial. He endeavors to find a rabbi to conduct the burial rights, distractedly forsaking a resistance movement he is ostensibly a part of.
As a character study, the film is downright fascinating. This is a man who has lost everything, and the film even posits that the dead child whom he is risking everything for may not even be his son at all. But to focus on whether Saul is actually the boy's father or is simply deluding himself is to miss the point. He has found a purpose, and even if it gets him killed, he wants to fulfill that purpose in a place that seems to offer him no purpose other than to perish. The camera focuses on him not just as a device of carnal censorship, but as a demonstration of his narrow focus, the way he copes with his environment by shutting out the madness, only to find a mad drive within himself to compensate during what could very well be the last day of his life.
It’s just such a shame that the movie doesn’t give us much to look at as a consequence. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario; by eliminating the problem of exploitative visuals by focusing almost entirely on Saul’s facial expressions and his interactions with Nazi officers and other prisoners, the film spends a sizable amount of its runtime following the back of Saul’s head. It’s a poor use of the medium, an attempt to use visual storytelling to tell a story that is better left unshown. This is a grand story for the written word, which would have the added benefit of insight into Saul thought processes. Instead, we have to read Saul’s face in what is, admittedly, a greatly understated performance by Géza Röhrig, but it just doesn’t carry the film as well as it needs to.
It’s not hard to see why this film won its Oscar. It’s a film about one of the greatest tragedies in history shot in an interesting fashion that makes it a distinct contender against more conventional entries. And yes, there is certainly a lot to like about the premise, the protagonist, the plot twists, and even the reasoning for its cinematographic choices. However, it’s just not as engaging as it should be, and it pains me to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. Sometimes the best concepts on paper just don’t work as well on film.