Friday, 25 December 2015

SON OF SAUL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Best Film of the Year & theNewMillennium

Son of Saul (2015)
Dir. László Nemes
Scr. László Nemes, Clara Royer
Starring: Géza Röhrig

Review By Greg Klymkiw

After seeing Son of Saul, I thought, well, there's not much reason to see anything else. It's a feeling that's certainly followed me throughout the myriad of pictures I've watched since, and even though some are very good, if not even exceptional, this extraordinary film by László Nemes is even suppressing films from my consciousness that I have seen before it - not just in the recent past, either. What Nemes accomplishes here as an artist is what we hope and pray great art will do.

I've only seen the picture once and I simply cannot shake its devastating effects. It has been seared upon my brain and weeks after seeing it, I keep playing the film over and over in my mind. The picture is beyond recollection, beyond reminiscence.

I feel that the act of seeing it is to finally experience a dramatic work, which is as close to bearing witness to events, emotions and experiences as any film I've ever seen. I feel that the act of seeing it is to finally experience a dramatic work, which is as close to bearing witness to events, emotions and experiences as any film I've ever seen. It's so grippingly real the sights and sounds feel like they're accompanied by a smell - pungent, horrific odours of death, filth, fire, rot and decay.

We know what occurred during the Holocaust, we know how insane and reprehensible genocide of any kind is, we know these things. We've seen Night and Fog, Shoah and Schindler's List, but I cannot think of any film which will ever do what Son of Saul has done.

Nemes places us in the very eye of this hurricane of devastation, this Hellfire on Earth, this 20th Century abomination which forces us to question how and why we continue to accept any hatred which is responsible for genocide.

Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer spare nothing to plunge us directly into the madness of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the astonishing mise-en-scene of never leaving the face of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian-Jew who works an "enviable" concentration camp job in the Sonderkommando. This group of prisoners are worked to the same levels of exhaustion as other inmates, but they are afforded a slightly loftier place in the pecking order of eventual extermination. They get slightly increased rations and slightly more "humane" work-shifts for herding their fellow Jews into the gas chambers.

The film begins with a group of prisoners forced to strip, then shoved into a shower room. Throughout the whole process, Nazi guards offer words of solace - placating the doomed prisoners with lies of a better life. Once locked into the shower room, Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando madly rifle through the clothing to extract all items of value as the screams of the nude prisoners pierce through the steel walls of the gas chamber.

Once the screams dissipate, Saul and the others drag the bodies ("the meat") out of the chamber, stack them, clean the chamber of all "filth" (urine and faecal matter expunged in both horror and death) and, of course, point out prisoners who are still alive.

These poor souls are shot or strangled. Some of them are selected by the "mad scientists" for autopsy in order to glean information as to how they survived.

It's here where Saul discovers a young boy who appears to be his son. He watches as the child is snuffed out and then tagged for autopsy. As if we, through Saul, have not already experienced a living nightmare, Nemes ramps things up even further.

The Nazis are attempting to beat the clock as the allies are ever-approaching and everything begins over again as new groups of victims are herded, stripped, gassed, piled like meat and transported to be burned.

Saul's goal is to keep up appearances, but to also obtain a proper Jewish burial for his son. The rest of the film is devoted to this, in addition to the ever-increasing pace of destruction.

The camera almost never leaves actor Géza Röhrig's face through any of this. It occasionally arcs around for us to get Saul's point of view, but these moments are fleeting and we can never escape his look of mad determination, whilst in the background, we see and hear the endless factory of death.

There is no musical score. If anything, the score is the soundscape of destruction - clangs, screams, gunshots.

Our senses are jangled, as actor Röhrig manages to keep the same face throughout, modifying it only slightly to move through the madness and achieve his goal. This might well be one of the greatest works any actor has done in any film.

The horror never lets up, but there is one sequence involving mass shootings and burnings as Saul fiercely attempts to achieve his goal, but to also convince some over-zealous Nazis that he is not to be shot and burned, that he is Sonderkommando. This sequence might well be the only time we will witness Hell on a movie screen - any movie screen. We are beyond jangled and pummelled here. The mise-en-scene forces us to experience Saul's elevated levels of horror.

The film continues to build to ever-intensifying crescendos of terror and Nemes inflicts a final cut to black that we don't see coming and winds us so painfully and horrendously that we physically feel the need to gasp for air.

This is a first feature for Nemes. One can't even imagine where he goes next as an artist, but with what he's created here, he has extraordinarily vaulted himself into the position of a Master.

There is, within the context of Saul's story, no hope, but the very act of experiencing it and bearing witness allows it anyway. No matter how devastated one is by the end, an overwhelming sense of hope swirls over us. We have experienced a work of art that we have had to experience. This is a film that defines the word "necessary".

Anything and everything we can do to urge others to see the film is our mission.

This is the hope.

The world needs to see this film and maybe, just maybe, there will be hope that the world can, because of this film, because of bearing witness, because of its mere existence, become a better place.


Son of Saul is a Mongrel Films release and currently playing in Canada at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.