'Son of Saul' ('Saul Fia'): Cannes Review

An intense descent into hell.

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' first feature premiered in competition in Cannes.

The hell and horrors of the Nazi death camps have rarely been so vividly suggested — and I do mean suggested, not necessarily depicted — as in Son of Saul (Saul Fia), the imposing debut of Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes. Any first feature that manages to land directly in the competition in Cannes has done something right, and the rookie writer-director here takes a well-known cinematic subject, the Nazi concentration camps, but distils his narrative to the story of just one man: the titular Saul. He’s a Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando worker who, in the piles of bodies he needs to clear from the gas chambers every day, discovers the corpse of a young boy he claims is his son.

Utterly uneasy to watch but strikingly and confidently assembled, the film is a powerful aural and visual experience that doesn’t quite manage to sustain itself over the course of its running time, but is a remarkable — and remarkably intense — experience nonetheless. High-end arthouse distributors on both sides of the Atlantic will want to consider adding this to their lineup, especially if it takes home a Cannes award or two. It also seems like a shoo-in for Hungary’s Foreign-Language Oscar submission for next year.

Saul Auslaender (Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet and occasional actor) slowly walks into focus at the start of Son of Saul, but the camera will then rarely leave him until the end. In a long sequence shot without any dialogue, the Hungarian Saul is seen doing his Sonderkommando job in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where another large group of Jews is chaotically escorted to the changing rooms and then into the "showers." The second the doors of the gas chamber are closed, Saul robotically starts emptying all the clothes hooks on the wall, while the screaming and banging from within the chamber quickly reaches an unbearable level, though Saul hardly seems to notice.

Read more THR's Complete Cannes Coverage

What helps to make the experience much more visceral and direct than more classically staged Holocaust films is Nemes and co-screenwriter Clara Royer’s narrowly focused story and the ditto camerawork from Matyas Erdely, who stays glued to the protagonist in all but a handful of shots, while almost blocking out almost everything else. The almost square aspect ratio already doesn’t leave much room for any background to appear but since everything is filmed in shallow focus, what little surroundings are present in the frame are more suggested than clearly visible.

Shot (and shown in Cannes) on 35mm, often in sickly greens and yellows and with deep shadows, Erdely’s cinematography is one of the film’s major assets, but it wouldn’t be half as effective without the soundwork, which plays a major role in suggesting what is happening around Saul, with audiences often forced to rely on the sound to imagine the whole, horrible picture.

Supplementing the multilayered audio — with its constant hisses and clanks, its shouted orders in German and screams and cries in different languages including Hungarian and Yiddish — is the sculptural, often mesmerizing face of Rohrig. The initially zombie-like protagonist morphs from a dead-in-the-eyes follower of orders to a determined man with a clear goal when he discovers the body of a young (nameless) boy he claims is his offspring. The decision to risk his own life multiple times to save the boy’s corpse from autopsy and the ovens, find a rabbi to say Kaddish and then give him a proper Jewish burial seem to infuse Saul with a steadfast determination he earlier seemed to lack. Saul’s resolve to honor this one "son" — it is never fully clear whether it is an actual a child of the protagonist — might, in Saul’s mind, redeem his forced treatment of all the others that came before him. 

The film features very little dialogue, instead relying on visuals and direct sound (there’s no score) to advance the story. This augments the raw sense of urgency and directness of a lot of the action but also makes some elements somewhat hard to follow, including a rebellion of sorts that seems to be fomenting among the other members of the Sonderkommando and that becomes especially urgent when a kapo (Urs Rechn) asks for the names of 70 Kommando men that are dispensable, which means they’ll be exterminated next.

Nemes, an assistant director on fellow countryman Bela Tarr's The Man from London, and editor Matthieu Taponier work hard to juggle all these elements in the film’s extended midsection but don’t quite succeed in sustaining the film's fever-pitch intensity throughout. This becomes especially clear when the tension suddenly flares up again during a nighttime roundup of Jews who are shot at close range because the gas chambers and ovens are all busy and Saul has given his coat with his Sonderkommando identification to the rabbi and thus risks being shot.

The decision to let go of the almost documentary-like tone in the last reel is handled just right, adding an unexpected touch of poetry without making the ending feel too detached from what has come before it.

Production company: Laokoon Filmgroup

Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Sandor Zsoter, Marcin Czarnik, Jerzy Zalczak, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Kamil Dobrowski, Amital Kedar, Istvan Pion, Juli Jakab, Levente Orban

Director: Laszlo Nemes

Screenplay: Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer

Producers: Gabor Sipos, Gabor Rajna

Director of photography: Matyas Erdely

Production designer:Laszlo Rajk

Editor: Matthieu Taponier

Music: Laszlo Melis

Casting: Eva Zabezsinszkij

Sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 107 minutes