Oscar Nominee “Son Of Saul” Riveting And Repellant


At their best Holocaust films can never adequately capture the horror of concentration camps.

At their worst they fetishize a culture of death.

saThen there’s “Son of Saul,” which is like an episode of “The Office” set in Hell.

It’s about a slaughterhouse where people are murdered in assembly line fashion. Management wears uniforms but slave labor does the dirty work.

Prisoners themselves, called Sonderkommando, herd Jews off trains like cattle and into changing rooms where wary but hopeful people undress with promise of soup and showers, the latter of course a euphemism for the Final Solution.

They stand outside as screaming men and women pound on locked doors and afterwards they drag naked bodies to the crematorium and shovel ashes into the lake.

It is a routine the Sonderkommando repeat so often that belongings left behind are stacked to the ceiling.

“Son of Saul,” the Oscar nominated foreign language film from Hungary, portrays the ruthless efficiency of this routine. And while much occurs just outside the frame we still see enough, maybe too much – naked bodies, limbs akimbo – for the worst of it to register indelibly. It does so audibly –  there is no musical score – in the wrenchingly discordant ambient sounds of a factory busily manufacturing the apocalypse.

The story is told from the point of view of one worker – gaunt and with sunken eyes, his face covered in ash – who discovers the corpse of a boy who may or may not be his son. His desperate search for a rabbi to say Kaddish, or the prayer for the dead, over the boy reveals the power structure and cliques among the prisoners, whose survivor’s guilt is compounded by the knowledge that they will die as well.

The director and co-writer Laszlo Nemes favors a visually furtive approach. His fluid tracking shots through this warren-like underworld never allow us to get our bearings and inspire a sense of panic. It is impossible to adequately describe events being portrayed except to say they are riveting and repellant.

***1/2 Three and one half stars

With Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmnont, Jerzy Walczak, Marcin Czarnik, Uwe Lauer, Kamil Dobrowski, Christian Harting. Produced by Gabor Rajna, Gabor Sipos.

Written by Laszlo Nemes, Clara Royer. Directed by Laszlo Nemes.

Approximate running time: 107 minutes.

Rated R; nudity, violence, intense scenes.

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