Saturday, April 30, 2016

Son of Saul - one's man futile ambition amidst death and depravity (QFT until 12 May)

Son of Saul invites audiences to step inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for 36 hours to see life from the perspective of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig) who works as a Sonderkommando, disposing of corpses in return for privileges and a temporary reprieve to his own certain death.

The camera never leaves the presence of Saul and László Nemes’ use of a 40mm lens at eye level captures the prisoner’s field of vision, with much of the background detail blurred or out of focus.

We hear the noise of inmates in the gas chamber, but don’t see behind the closed door until Saul enters to “move the pieces” and stack up the bodies so they can be moved for cremation in the next stage of the deadly production line. The sounds of the camp and Saul’s environs are often as important as the images on screen.
“You’ll help me bury my son?”

The title is a giant spoiler: Saul identifies one young naked body as his son and in a defiant act of humanity decides to smuggle the child away to be buried in accordance with Jewish tradition. This desire propels him through the rest of the 107 minute film in a bid to find a cooperative rabbi.

It’s never clear whether the child is really Saul’s son, or whether he adopts the tragic youth as a last protest against the system that is squashing his little remaining life force. While Saul plans his own act of insubordination, the Sonderkommando plan a revolt to escape the camp and evade the gas chamber that awaits them as ‘bearers of secrets’.

The story telling is chaotic as we move around different sections of the camp following Saul. We share his vantage point, but not his thinking and the audience are forever playing catch up with the action. This adds to the feeling of futility mixed with fear. Shots are allowed to run on a lot longer than usual, intensifying the feeling of proximity to the action.

A dark and unsettling watch, this movie has deservedly accumulated a bulging table of awards for debut director László Nemes, including the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It’s a reminder both that desperate people can be pushed to do desperate deeds, but also that desperate people can still yearn for normalcy and respect in a dehumanised and nearly emotionless environment.

Son of Saul is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre until 12 May.

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