'Son of Saul' review: Powerful, unflinching descent into the banality of evil
The Auschwitz death camp drama "Son of Saul" (screened at AFI FEST 2015 and opens in additional cities nationwide Feb. 5) is unlike any Holocaust film you've ever seen. This intense and emotionally draining descent into the inner working of a death concentration camp is a powerful must-see film.
In short: Auschwitz prisoner Saul - forced to work as part of the Sonderkommando death camp unit - tirelessly tries to find a rabbi so he can give a young murdered boy a proper Jewish burial. (Watch the trailer)
The banality of evil is the true horror of "Saul." There's a mundane routine to the gruesome process Saul is forced to endure, as he ransacks prisoner clothing and pulls dead bodies out of gas chambers. "Saul" functions as a grim, behind-the-scenes look at the industrial inner workings of hell on Earth.
"Son of Saul" forces a personal connection to Saul. The camera is almost always centered squarely on Saul himself. The ever-present handheld camera work thrusts the audience into the hellish concentration camp. Saul's thousand-yard-stare is front and center as he is forced to do the Nazi's dirty work. Presenting Saul's blank, single-minded focus on his immediate, horrifying task at hand - whether its shoveling coal to power the crematoriums or cleaning up blood - underscores his plight: he is simply trying to survive. This film does not flinch in its portrayal of the atrocities Saul and his co-workers are forced to take part in. While the most graphic content takes place just out of camera frame or is obscured in the background, this actually succeeds in making "Son of Saul" more distressing.
Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig's nuanced and determined performance is brilliant. He is a man of few words - but Röhrig creates a harrowing, if quiet, character on an impossible quest: to find humanity within an absolutely inhumane setting. Saul is not plotting some intricate revenge scheme or trying to come up with a way to escape the camp -- he is solely focused on doing something good - something right - amid the horrors of an absolutely hopeless situation. This is a story of a man's fight to cling to his own humanity in a place where humanity must be discarded to survive.
Final verdict: "Son of Saul" is not simply a great foreign film - this is one of the very best films of 2015 and one of the most powerful films set amid the horrors of the Holocaust. (Note: "Son of Saul" was ranked third best of the 150 films I watched in 2015.)
"Son of Saul" screened at AFI FEST 2015 opens in additional cities nationwide Feb. 5. This Oscar-nominated drama is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.