By: Joe Dreshar
First, we need to dispel the notion that the world has exhausted Holocaust narratives. Though we have had films like Schindler’s List and Shoah and books like Night by Elie Weisel, Son of Saul makes it clear that we have not finished telling the stories of the camps.
The movie is centered around Saul, a sonderkommando who is charged with escorting people into the gas chambers and cleaning up the chamber afterwards. However, the movie is not about that. Though the Holocaust is never far from view, the corpses and ash are not the focus. Rather, the movie concerns Saul discovering his son among those killed in the gas chamber and trying to find a way to save his body from the ovens.
What makes this move stand out is the camera work. It is shot in 4:3 Academy ratio and with a short focus. The camera prowls behind or in front of Saul, meaning that, often, more than half of the screen is obstructed by him. What can be seen around his body is blurry. Right at the beginning, we see the results of the gas chamber in the form of piles of corpses. But you can’t see them. They are a flesh-toned blur on the screen while Saul, in focus, scrubs the floor and walls around them. As a cinematic choice, this goes a long way to doing two things: keeping the focus (literally) on Saul and his personal drama rather than expanding it to the whole of the Shoah, and replicate the numbness and compartmentalization of the Sonderkommando working in that position.
The ending is a weak spot for me. Whereas the first few acts stand out because of the way they are not like other movies, the ending gives way to an action set piece. Though reminiscent of a movie I regard well, The Children of Men, and though the non-central role of Saul in that action set piece, it still taints, in a minor way, the good that that the film had built.
At this point, it has won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. This award was well deserved.
You can see this film at FilmScene in Iowa City through March 10th. Hurry, while it’s still there!