Son of Saul

  • Reviewed by: Jim Hemphill
  • Review Date: May 10, 2016
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Son of Saul

Director

László Nemes

Release Date(s)

2015 (April 26, 2016)

Studio(s)

Hungarian National/Laokoon (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A+
  • Extras Grade: A

Son of Saul (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul is one of those rare movies that lives up to extreme hype – having won virtually every award for which it was eligible, from the Grand Prix at Cannes to the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it now comes to home video with the weight of enormous expectations for those who haven’t seen it. The good news is that while Son of Saul undoubtedly gains something by being experienced on the big screen, it has lost little of its power in its transition to Blu-ray. Indeed, if anything the increased intimacy of home viewing makes the film even more powerful. A simple but devastating tale of a father seeking a burial for his (supposed) son, it is a masterpiece of the Holocaust that, in its own way, is on a par with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Whereas that film took an epic approach, Nemes goes in the opposite direction and uses the smallest, most personal story possible to explore one of the most incomprehensible events in world history. Yet his film is every bit as powerful as Spielberg’s, and equally audacious in terms of form.

Nemes’ film focuses on the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis at Auschwitz. Saul is one of these prisoners, a man who spends his days leading his fellow Jews to the gas chamber, all the while knowing he could someday be one of them. When he sees the body of a young boy, he asserts that it’s his son and begins a clandestine mission to find a rabbi who will recite the Kaddish and give the boy a proper burial. Though others in the camp claim that Saul has no son, he is insistent and goes to great lengths to achieve his goal. That’s pretty much it as far as plot goes, but Son of Saul is less a film about plot than experience and behavior. While some critics have attacked the film for even daring to attempt conveying the “experience” of the Holocaust, once one is on board with Nemes’ intentions there’s no denying the power of his vision.

Clearly no form of cinematic expression can truly compare with the horror of life in a concentration camp, so rather than explicitly depict the action Nemes chooses to frame most of it offscreen. His camera sticks ruthlessly to Saul’s point of view for all but a shot or two, never moving far beyond Saul or what he can see. The result is that we see glimpses of trauma and tragedy at the edges of the frame but are never able to linger on them – as Saul looks away and moves on, so do we. Yet the images do linger; they haunt the viewer to increasing effect as they accumulate. The stripped-down brutality of the visuals finds an interesting counterpoint in Nemes’ sound design, which is incredibly immersive; he uses the dense aural techniques of Hollywood tent poles to far more chilling and adult ends, surrounding the viewer with layer upon layer of sound that vividly evokes the terror we can’t see with our eyes. Both the purity of the images and the complexity of the sound are expertly handled on the Blu-ray transfer, which preserves the film’s claustrophobic 1.33:1 aspect ratio and flawlessly recreates the drab but detailed monochromatic palette. The surround mix is extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing.   

Nemes is quite articulate about his process and intentions, making the extra features on Son of Saul essential viewing. There’s an excellent commentary track by Nemes, cinematographer Matyas Erdely, and star Geza Rohrig, all of whom also participate in an hour-long panel at the Museum of Tolerance that has been included here. These interviews beautifully explore the ethics, emotions, and technique of the film, providing ample insight for those interested in Nemes’ approach. A brief deleted scene and theatrical trailer round out the set.

- Jim Hemphill

 

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