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The Reel Alternative: ‘Son of Saul’ is Breathtaking Exercise in Realism

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Written by: Zachary D. ElickMarch 16, 2016

Quality reviews focused on alternative films shown at Fort Wayne’s Cinema Center. A column by Zachary D. Elick.

“Son of Saul” is a truly unique viewing experience. The Academy Award-winning film gives the audience a perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust like they have never seen before.

Set in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944, “Son of Saul” focuses on a member of the “Sonderkommando,” a group of Jewish prisoners charged with helping the Nazis lead their fellow Jews into the gas chambers. The protagonist, Saul, and the other hapless Sonderkommandos wipe the chambers clean after the lives of the people inside have been extinguished. This includes piling thousands of lifeless bodies onto carts to be taken up to the furnaces and burned, as well as picking through the clothes of the victims searching for food or jewelry.

The Sonderkommando lived a more comfortable existence compared to the rest of the prisoners in the camp. Though, the atrocities they are forced to take part in certainly have taken a toll on them. This is especially true of Saul, who is played by Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig.

Director Laszlo Nemes makes the bold choice of having the camera linger oppressively on Rohrig throughout the film. There are only a handful of shots in the movie where the viewer does not see a part of his character’s head or face. Coupled with this is the director’s consistent use of shallow focus, often making Saul the only part of the image seen in focus. He is the inescapable vessel for the viewers to delve into the hellish operations of the camp.

Because of this technique, much of what goes on around Saul is not visible to the viewer. Yet, the filmmakers always make sure to show them just enough to know what is going on.

The limited visual scope of “Son of Saul” gives its sound design an opportunity to impress with the suggestive and foreboding noises that fill the scenes.

As Saul scrambles through the camp’s congested hallways and smoke-filled yard, the viewer  slowly learns more about the hierarchy and secret goings-on of the Sonderkommando. For instance, the captains, or “oberkapos,” of this group rule over their fellow prisoners in a similar manner to their own Nazi overlords, the “Oberscharfuher.” But it is clear that just like everyone in the Sonderkommando, they are only doing what they have to in order to survive.

In fact, survival seems to be the key motivation behind every decision made by the men in the sonderkommando, except for Saul. Nemes was clear in the press kit for the film that he “didn’t want to make a hero of anybody.”

If not a hero, Saul is certainly a man on a mission — a seemingly pointless mission that drives the plot of the film. However, one could argue that Saul’s apparent rejection of his own self-preservation instincts is his way of striving for a different kind of survival: not of the body, but of the spirit.

Many viewers will likely debate the merits of the actions Saul takes throughout the film, which I am sure was part of the filmmaker’s intent. I, for one, am simply appreciative of a movie that presents its characters in a humane and truthful manner.

As grueling as “Son of Saul” can be to watch, its illustration of the last throes of hope in a desperate situation is quite an uplifting experience. And the manners in which it brings the viewer into its twisted world — a world that is not fantasy but was actually created by men a scant 70 years ago — is a breathtaking exercise in realism.