Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, History
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Geza Rohrig
Co-Written & Directed by Laszlo Nemes (feauture-film debut)
There is definitely no shortage of Holocaust films. Revisiting the most horrific occurrence in human history is definitely understandable and important, forcefully pushing these unthinkable events back into the viewing public's consciousness from time to time. Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes chooses this unsettling topic for his very first film, Son of Saul (opening today), which was just nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. And while it is actually considered the front-runner to win in that category, Son of Saul is one of the least-effective Holocaust movies in quite some time, precisely due to Nemes's gimmicky visual style.
he story unfolds inside of the Auschwitz concentration camp and follows (literally) Jewish prisoner Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). His face is in the frame for the entirety of the film, following his journey as though a GoPro was strapped to his head. At first, this unusual and intimate framing works to put us smack-dab in the middle of Saul's horrendous circumstances, and creates a truly unique perspective that has never been brought to the genre. But soon the trick wears thin, becomes a bit claustrophobic, and results in a pretty bland movie-going experience as I found myself just wishing the camera would pull back just a bit to let some air in. Yes, in attempting to go for this up-close perspective, the film actually becomes less personal as it slogs on.
Witnessing countless murders and other atrocities first-hand, and being forced to burn his own kind, Saul watches as a young boy is killed within Auschwitz. This boy was at first found alive after surviving the gas chambers. Saul takes the dead boy on as his son, and makes it the sole purpose in his life to find a rabbi somewhere within the camp that can give his son a proper Jewish burial.
Rohrig's performance is quite remarkable, carrying the emotional weight of the entire Holocaust in his facial expressions, and considering that he never leaves the camera frame from start to finish. But again, this device works against the movie eventually.
Son of Saul wants to be a fresh take on the barbarity of the Nazis during WWII and attempts to make the experience personal. But it fails to cover any unfamiliar ground or unearth any new emotional nuances of the Jewish experience during those cataclysmic times. The result feels wholly ordinary, considering the context.
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