Wednesday, February 03, 2016

OVP: Son of Saul (2015)

Film: Son of Saul (2015)
Stars: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn
Director: Laszlo Nemes
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Foreign Language Film-Hungary*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Oscar-nominated films, particularly in the Foreign Language Film category, are frequently in one of two varieties.  You have your lighter fare comedies, the films that probably couldn't dream of being nominated for an Oscar in a normal circumstance but because it's in a foreign language the implied artistry is there so it's forgivable, and then you have the harsh, wintry dramas, films so dark and dank that they make The Revenant look positively sunny (well, not actually as that film is ridiculously bleak, but you know what I mean).  Upon initial glance, Son of Saul was clearly going to be in the latter category.  A film about a man who struggles to bury a young boy he just killed in the gas chambers during the Holocaust is not really a film that is going to be popcorn-infused or a particularly strong date movie.  However, while watching I couldn't quite bucket this film, which is getting massive Oscar buzz and already has the nomination, into a specific bucket of so many dark dramas that came before it.  The film contours itself just enough to be memorable, to stick with you in filmic ways you didn't quite expect.

(Spoilers Ahead) The first fifteen minutes of Son of Saul I quite frankly was stumped.  The movie starts out with a herky-jerky camera where we're following Saul (Rohrig) around what appears to be a fairly routine day in his concentration camp, which is petrifying because his routine day is helping the Nazis kill hundreds of his fellow countrymen.  We see Saul as he kills multiple people in the gas chamber, and the film actually plays with our viewing of the horror a little bit by keeping select background characters blurred during this sequence, perhaps mirroring the way that Saul can cope with such atrocity on an almost hourly basis.  Honestly, fifteen minutes in (after having a quick breakdown in tears) I wondered how the hell I was going to deal with this camerawork (which was hurting my eyes) and such a dour film for so long.

The film, however, offered a reprieve from the camerawork (at least not to the same extreme it had initially) and I slowly found myself enveloped into the story of Saul as he tries to bury a young man whom he believes is his son, though he hasn't seen him in years, and according to some of the other men he works with, he has no son.  The film follows him as he tries to secure a rabbi to perform a proper burial for the boy, all-the-while being involved in a daring escape mission that other men in the camp have been planning for weeks.  During these scenes where he's fleeing to different work stations around the camp and is involving himself in multiple on his quest, we get perhaps the most interesting endeavor of the movie, as we see a bizarre hodgepodge of personalities around the camp.  We meet, for example, a man who is smuggling pictures out of the camp to an Allied journalist to show the atrocities of what the Germans are doing.  We see the madness that has settled in on the prisoners of the camp, and we slowly start to wonder whether or not Saul as our narrator is particularly reliable.

One of the great things about Son of Saul's script is that we never really get an answer to that question.  While we soon learn that Saul's child, if he is indeed Saul's child, was not with his wife but with a woman whom he had an affair with (likely a prostitute) and this is his only way of offering absolution for someone he couldn't acknowledge in life.  It's a powerful message, and it shows that either through madness or sheer will he finds a way to bury the boy (though the rabbi he eventually discovers is not in fact a holy man, but someone pretending to be a religious figure to save himself from being executed), but doesn't end up succeeding, watching the boy's body disappear into the river before he encounters his ghostly spirit in the woods (right before the German guards chance upon Saul and the fleeing prisoners and shoots them).  It's a fascinating conundrum of a film as it shows not only the physical atrocities of the Holocaust, but the mental ones as well.  The film's central premise of whether or not Saul has been driven insane by such horror for so many decades is a critical component of the movie, and manages to gloss over what otherwise is a pretty standard-fare drama.  If this film wins the Oscar as I suspect it will, I hope it does so because of this strange story-twist and not just because it's a World War II drama, a favorite subject of this category, as that is what sets Son of Saul apart.

Those are my thoughts on this tough, challenging, film-what about yours?  Do you think Hungary will secure its first win in decades?  Do you believe that Saul truly had a son, and why do you feel that way regardless of the answer?  And where does this rank on your own Oscar ballot?  Share in the comments below!

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