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SON OF SAUL

SYNOPSIS: In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival by trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Possibly the most focused film we will see this year - or perhaps any year - Son Of Saul is as obsessed with its central character as its central character is with his self appointed mission. This can be read as a cathartic search for redemption amidst the horrors of Auschwitz, where Saul is on the clean up detail as one of the sonderkommando unit, scrubbing, cleaning, removing personal effects and helping to move the corpses through what is a chaotic, noisy, industrial death factory.

Compelled to participate in the conveyor belt process of mass murder, this sonderkommando finds a shaft of moral hope: his soul cries out for it, trying to save the body of a boy from the brutal post mortem and eventually the incinerator.

Young Hungarian filmmaker Lászlo Nemes and his team fill the soundtrack with the screams of the victims and the hoarse commands of the German guards, to "los!" and "schnell, schnell!". The cacophony is as brutal as the actions of the Nazis, but much of it is off screen. The camera stays on Saul, often behind his left or right shoulder, as if we were almost inside his head. And for some people that is where they will feel they have been for 100 or so minutes, drained and fatigued by the horror of it all. And if you think that having seen your share of Holocaust movies you have seen them all, you are in for a surprise.

Apart from the intensity of the soundtrack, the insistently tight focus of the camera, the look and feel of the film and the emotive score combine to fill our senses. It is this immersive level of film making that earned Son of Saul the Grand Prix of the Cannes 2015 Jury.

Géza Röhrig's Saul is not so much a performance as a state of being, conveyed through his almost soul-less expression, at once hinting of emotional deep freeze - and desperate determination.

Son of Saul is not without its flaws, notably an ending that goes against the commercial grain ... And invites a couple of questions. But at least its flaws are worthy of exploration, analysis and debate.

The film poses us a challenge, to stay engaged in the face of extreme immersion in emotional suffering, and also to gradually recognise what the film is saying about Saul and his mission to give this young stranger's corpse a proper Jewish burial as his own son would receive, saving him from a brutal post mortem. The other metaphor, how the Nazis dismembered the Jews, is acute and gives the film its value as a work of lasting value.

Review by Louise Keller:
Unique in its storytelling perspective, first time Hungarian director László Nemes tells his story inside the Auschwitz backrooms of death from an intense, claustrophobic personal viewpoint. We see Nemes' protoganist Saul (Géza Röhrig) in tight close up for most of the film - the camera locked on his strong features and expressionless face or showing what he sees around him. Although most of the action takes places out of the frame, there is no doubt as to what Holocaust horrors are transpiring. They might be out of focus, but the images of naked bodies unceremoniously dragged across the gas chamber floors or the prisoners shot at point blank range clearly scream their dread.

Winner of the 2015 Cannes Grand Prix, Son of Saul is a disturbing film and an astonishing debut for both Nemes and his lead actor. The dramatic mix of style and subject matter exacerbates its impact, even though Nemes' relentless singular approach does not quite withstand the distance.

As one of the Sonderkommando - Jews forced to work in the death camps - Saul is almost robotic in his actions, as he shepherd the Jews into groups and follows orders as they are told to disrobe, hang their clothes on hooks and vigorously scrub the blood stained floor. The body of a young boy is the catalyst that gives Saul a purpose - suddenly if he cannot protect life, dignity in death becomes his all-important goal.

We get a sense of the hopelessness, the brutality, the inhuman treatment and cruelty as the 'pieces' (faceless bodies) are removed after execution. There is no camaraderie, no civil exchanges - just a struggle for survival, with the pungent smell of death ever present.

So intense is the feeling of claustrophobia that at times I felt I could not breathe. It is not entirely clear as to the identity of the young boy - whether he is really the son of Saul or whether the boy is symbolic of the innocence slaughtered. Nemes may have miscalculated his ending - it might have been far more effective had the film ended some frames earlier.

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INTERVIEW WITH LASZLO NEMES

CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 1

SON OF SAUL (MA15+)
(Hungary, 2015)

Saul fia

CAST: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Jerzy Walczak

PRODUCER: Gábor Rajna, Gábor Sipos

DIRECTOR: László Nemes

SCRIPT: László Nemes, Clara Royer

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mátyás Erdély

EDITOR: Matthieu Taponier

MUSIC: László Melis

PRODUCTION DESIGN: László Rajk

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 26, 2016







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