Son of Saul — Film Review


I’m not that acquainted with video games, and maybe the following comparison will be regarded as an amateurish “oh yeah she’s a girl wannabe/wanna sound cool” take, but I don’t really care — watching Son of Saul immediately gave me a flashback from my first experience of playing Hitman. I was sixteen, and trying to impress someone. I died after a few heroic minutes of course, and the small room of the internet café filled with chattering guys awarded me with ironic condolences. But less about memorable teenage stories, more about the movie:

The abrupt opening picks up a male character. The back of his coat is marked with an X, and as we get a scope of the surrounding frenzy of the inside bunker, the close up sticks to the man (we learn that his name is Saul), and thus the camera turns behind him and goes on to following him along.

Long, clear close up shots are coordinated with Saul’s almost mechanical movements, while the rest of the canvas is almost impossible to follow, but sketched by horrendous background sounds and blurry images: people getting undressed and passing-by naked bodies getting sent to take a shower, followed by a collective and desperate cry for help. Saul cleans the remains of the room, and the camera catches a glimpse of the bodies. The camera does not get time to zoom into details, as Saul is constantly urged to return to his Arbeit (work). We learn that Saul´s role is the of a Sonderkommando, a work unit who has to dispose the bodies. His reality is composed of terms as Arbeit and Stücke (which signifies pieces instead of bodies or corpses), and brief flashes of action triggered by soldiers and his fellow prisoners.

Saul’s automated behavior is somewhat paused by the presence of a young boy who survives the gas room, who awakes his survival instinct and adds a new purpose to his life: to give him a propper burial. His constant fight to relinquish anything for this cause is ingeniously shown through a edgy narrative and haunting sound effects (a mix between silence, a lack of any whatsoever use of music, but glimpses of barking dogs, gun fires, an infant’s cry, and soldiers shouting). A lot of the sub context remains completely ignored not only by Saul but also other Sonderkommandos, making it explicitly disturbing, but also clear that the horrors have become nothing but a normal caption of their abnormal and routineus days, in the hope that they get to escape before they get executed. Saul does not share the same hope, as all his energy is focused around the boy (whom he calls his son, but as the action is progressing becomes a detail that we begin to question).

|Following paragraph is to be regarded as a SPOILER| The ending scene marks an unsettling victory for the team of Sonderkommandos who have managed to escape and plan the next steps. The background sounds of the officers can be easily distinguished in the silent atmosphere, and Saul’s piercing eyes who catch the image of a young German boy tell the story of abandonment of fear and embrace of redemption. The camera no longer protects us from brutal images, but simply offers us a clear and one last pure gaze into what life represents for Saul.

Although the cinematic experience that the camera creates between the audience and the movie can be interpreted as “distant” or “confusing”, the film manages to catch the sense of being in a concentration camp, without polishing the image or comforting us with acoustic melodies.

I loved the choice for the movie title. I’m usually very inquisitive with that, mostly because I consider a title should say more than just “ The brave eight men that you see in the poster.” This title is perfect because its connotation is not as direct as we expect, and the underlying interpretations are there to be explored by the audience while watching the movie and after going out of the cinema.

What stood out for me most, besides a strong cathartic feeling, is the fact that Saul walked into the shot and thus simply happened to be the character whose story I was to follow. The possibility of any other character to have done this instead is sending the message that every story is worthwhile following and just as interesting, in all of its complexity.