Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
László Nemes acclaimed feature debut, Son of Saul, marginalizes dense content of concentration camp activities through its distinct but abusive cinematic style. Though immediately calling one’s attention to its unique visual rhetoric, wherein a mobile camera fastened into selective focus follows Saul (Géza Röhrig) move about the camp, the film’s potential to captivate is hastened by its overbearing, rather obnoxious bravura. At times virtuosic, the cinematic flourishes of Son of Saul are matched if not outdone by its overzealousness. The image of Saul’s back and movements take precedence over the happenings surrounding him, happenings which are exploitative and highly embellished, both factually and stylistically. Rather than sincerely depict tragedies of the war, Son of Saul takes advantage of the emotive power of tragedy by sensationalizing the happenings then hiding its sensationalism behind a creative cinematic trick.
Entirely shot, besides the final scene, from over Saul’s shoulder, behind his back, or in close-up of his face, the film is composed primarily of long mobile takes trailing Saul as he chaotically moves about the camp. It is unclear for some time what is his purpose, but we eventually learn that he seeks a rabbi in order to bury a young Hungarian boy whom he takes for his son. This sense of duty which he obliges counters the needs of his peers, who look to him for support in their uprising. A sonderkommando, one who is given work duties in lieu of torture, he has the resources to make a difference, and yet his tunnel vision duty prevents him from doing so. Seemingly indifferent to his surroundings, he ignores the depravity around him. Perhaps his sense of duty is what keeps him from recognizing the pain and wickedness surrounding, which is seen in the blurry sides and backgrounds of the frames. Cinematically similar to the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, this style functions in producing a shared experience wherein the viewer is meant to feel a vicarious sense of involvement in their visual approximation of Saul’s perception. Unfortunately, Nemes does not manage to convey an authentic presence, instead choosing to place the viewer in a kind of horror-themed amusement ride.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its positives. There is no doubt that Son of Saul is a cinematic accomplishment. The use of space and setting is highly affective, as the camera’s claustrophobic nature brings to the audience a unique and much appreciated vision of the holocaust. Though overwhelming, the sheer amount of sensory activity is buttressed by an inestimable amount of off-screen action and sound, yielding a dynamic abundance of images. And there are certain powerful moments of pulp, such as the blood spatter from a man’s death or the midnight fire in which naked captives are shot and dropped into a trench. That said, the haunting nature of its sensational visual style makes Son of Saul a highly exhausting and emotionally manipulative film.
The haunting nature of its sensational visual style makes Son of Saul a highly exhausting and emotionally manipulative film.