Saturday, May 21, 2016

Son of Saul

I fat assed my Friday night away on the couch with Jasmin watching of all things, Son of Saul, a Hungarian Holocaust film set in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Not the most uplifting of evenings, but I had actually wanted to see the film for some time since it not only won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but also had the distinct honor of being last year's Grand Prize winner at Cannes.

Simple in plot but complex in its delivery, the film tells the story of Saul, a Jewish concentration-camp prisoner desperately trying to give a boy, whom he's claimed is his son (a fact left in question throughout the film, since other prisoners insist he doesn't have a son), a proper Jewish burial. The horrors of Auschwitz are compounded by guilt for Saul, as he's a member of the camp's Sonderkommando. Prisoners and slave laborers like the rest of their compatriots, the Sonderkommando were given slightly better living conditions (housing, rations, etc.) and their own deaths temporarily delayed, in exchange for the soul-wrenching duty of shepherding their own (men, women and children) to their deaths. Like lambs to the slaughter, they guided new arrivals to the gas chambers; appeasing their fears and easing their panic with their mere presence, as fellow Jews, and promises of a hot tea after a hot shower. Only to have to clean up afterwards, not only discarding of now ownerless belongings but bodies.

I love any film or book that makes me feel; that opens my eyes to someone's plight; that lets me walk a mile in their shoes; especially if it shines a light on our own common humanity. If I experience tears in the course of this endeavor, they are but a small price to pay for what I take away from the experience. With all that said, I'll honestly confess that I found Son of Saul uniquely disconcerting; a riveting, yet grim and tense experience, but one lacking in expressive emotion. First of all, the visuals I think have a lot to do with the general feel of the film. The film is shot in tight close ups, a lot from directly behind the main protagonist's shoulder, and the periphery of the frame is constantly left a blur (a fact you'll look on in gratitude in some instances). The dialogue is limited; no sweeping soundtrack, instead sounds are limited to cries of fear, gasps, quiet conspiratorial conversations, and whispers from Saul. As for the acting, namely the main actor portraying Saul, there is quiet brilliance in every blank stare that chills you in its starkness. Almost like the walking dead, Saul's face and limited words convey no fear, anger or even sorrow, leaving you at a loss to whether he's indifferent to his duties or just numb. The only answer comes in the pained intensity of his eyes and his desperation to fulfill this one act of compassion. In his Oscar acceptance speech, the director said "You know, even in the darkest hours of mankind … there might be a voice within us, that allows us to remain human." I think Saul's obsession with this child (his or not) was his bid to remain human, a fact brilliantly conveyed by both film and actors.

Son of Saul is not mere entertainment, but an eye-opening experience; a new film worthy of being added to the expansive library of Holocaust films, it offers a different perspective from what we've become accustomed. While most other Holocaust films evoke a deep emotional reaction as the viewer connects and empathizes with the effusive and poignant sorrow, horror, and pain conveyed on the screen, Son of Saul instead leaves you almost shellshocked, dazed and unsure of this frightening reality, and in so doing gives us a mind-rattling glimpse at the numbness, apathy, isolation, and silent desperation shared by those mired in hopelessness and disillusionment during this dark time in our history.