NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: We simply don’t deserve László Nemes, the first-time writer/director of Hungary’s submission for the Oscar’s Foreign Language category, “Son of Saul.” Nemes vacuums everything we think we know about filmmaking and the Holocaust, and gives it a raw, intense, and fresh outlook that we haven’t seen since Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” perhaps even Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Not to mention, he is thoroughly aided and indebted to the stunning and remarkable talent of Géza Röhrig, in his feature debut. The two simply dance circles around other films and performances seen in this year, with an authentic and genuine approach to art, that we just don’t get to experience too often. I’m in awe.
“Son of Saul” tells the story of Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large-scale extermination. In October 1944, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkomando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task.
Its direction like Nemes that should make the world very optimistic about the future of cinema. If we have filmmakers like him, getting in the trenches of history and the human spirit, and beckoning its awakening into our souls, we should be so lucky to have him display the beauty and evil of the world in such a provocative and engaging manner. His choices in which to shoot the film, and portray one of the most heinous acts in the history of our existence is just downright scintillating. “Son of Saul” plays as if we’re watching a disturbing, noxious, and depraved home movie about a time in which we never want to see. From a near first-person perspective, we enter the revolting world of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He uses out of focus camera work, to not bath in the bloodshed, but wallow in the psyche of a man, that is desperate for purpose. It’s the single best direction of the year. I’d go so far to say this could be the single best direction seen this decade. His script, along with co-writer Clara Royer, is so painstakingly simple but echoes decades of oppression in its short, respectful run time.
Don’t call him a “poet by profession” because newcomer Géza Röhrig doesn’t believe in the word profession. There’s only artists. Géza Röhrig is an artist, of which I haven’t seen in some time. With little words, he says countless and devastating things about what he’s feeling and what we know about ourselves. He doesn’t use cheap tricks to engage the audiences like “really intense face” or “really scared moving.” Röhrig displays the numb, almost disengaged weight of the world in every physical and vocal movement he chooses to exhibit. It’s a flawless, masterful performance that we need more of in this cinematic world.
Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is your next great craftsman to watch, even though making his mark on films like “The Quiet Ones” and “Miss Bala.” He frames close-ups that Danny Cohen himself, would hope to achieve in his next collaboration with Tom Hooper. He stays with a person, a scene, a moment, so intelligently, and so vibrantly, he places each one of us in the rooms, full of fear, and full of hopelessness. The subtle yet effective music by László Melis is sonorous but the Sound team is what really needs their praise. Tamás Dévényi (Production Soundmixer), Tamás Székely (Sound Editor), and Tamás Zányi (Sound Designer) create monstrous and dynamic effects that essentially become its own focal point of the story. We are listening intently, desperately, and just fearful at every nick, boom, and cry we come in contact with. It’s something everyone should and will notice and applaud.
“Son of Saul” sneaks up on you. It’s too important and critical to our cinematic landscape to overlooked or forgotten. I can’t imagine a more dour and sullen experience this year that fills my heart with this much adoration. It stands toe-to-toe with most Holocaust films created in and before my lifetime. It may be the definitive one this millennium.
“Son of Saul” opens in theaters on December 18th and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.