The Holocaust has been a continuous source of inspiration for many filmmakers, and it is probably one of the most filmed historical topics, and even now, over seventy years later, it is still a horrific and raw historical memory that still exists in our collective minds. Films about the Holocaust range from horrifying (Shoah) to brilliant (Schindler’s List) to just plain offensive (Life is Beautiful). Son of Saul (Saul fia) is a film that doesn’t fit into any of these windows – rather, it is a good film, but an ultimately disappointing one, because it could have been far better, and the buzz around this film made me think it would be much better than it actually was.
I am always someone willing to support films from other countries, and one country that has unfortunately not received the same international acclaim as the likes of Japan, Italy and France is Hungary – there are so many fantastic Hungarian films, which are rarely as popular as films from other countries. I was looking forward to Son of Saul, believing it to be the film that would possible change that, and give the country a genuine hit overseas. It certainly managed to do that – it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and had a definite presence over the course of the 2015 awards season, starting with its premiere in Cannes. It seemed like this film was going to put Hungarian cinema on the map. It did achieve this, but I wish that it had happened sooner, and for a much better film. Sadly, as much as I wanted to love Son of Saul, I just couldn’t, and I was deeply disappointed in this film.
Believe me when I say this – I was such an ardent supporter of this film, even before I saw it. All year, I was desperately supporting this film, because I wanted it to do well – a unique Holocaust drama, from an underrated cinematic nation, with a first-time filmmaker with an exciting vision, and a very interesting lead actor (more on him later on) – I just wanted this film to be great. I kept postponing releasing my list of the best films of the year until the last conceivable moment, holding out hope that I would manage to see it because I legitimately thought it would be a remarkable film. It wasn’t, and I really did not feel like the hype around this film was really worth it.
The story is the one thing that drew me to this film – the Sonderkommando were one of the most fascinating and important people in the Holocaust – Jews that had to dispose of the bodies of their people who were killed by the horrifying Final Solution. Son of Saul concerns one of these men, the titular Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew who believes his son has been killed, and seeks out a rabbi to help him bury his son. The film takes a unique look at the Holocaust in this way – instead of concentrating on the entire event, or the lives of the general population in the camps, it focused on one individual and his experiences over a very short time (about one or two days). This was a simple approach to the story, which was unfortunately not executed well enough for it to be as convincing as it should have been. But there are certainly some positives to this film.
Leading a film like Son of Saul is a monumental task – and that task fell into the hands of Géza Röhrig, a poet/school-teacher/rabbi/musician that lived in New York City and last acted in a film in the 1980s – almost the very definition of an unknown. Most of the time, casting a complete unknown is tricky – but director László Nemes did it anyway – and he and Röhrig have been working the circuit for months now and truly getting their names out there. However, many people, including myself, had enormous expectations for Röhrig, and I thought he would have certainly delivered. Long story short, he didn’t. It isn’t that Röhrig gave a bad performance in this film – he just didn’t give much of a performance as he wasn’t given much to do. He spoke very little (but the amount a character speaks is not always indicative of how good a performance is), but this film is composed mostly of following Röhrig around as he makes his way across the camp.
Röhrig gets some fantastic moments in the film, particularly the beginning and end of the film. However, it seems like he just wasn’t given enough to do to make Saul an interesting and developed character, which is a complete shame, as this role could have been the role of a lifetime. I hope Röhrig does more films, because he certainly has a unique look about him, and I think with the right film, he could give a tremendously moving performance. I will go ahead and suggest that whenever a new James Bond film is eventually made, they consider Röhrig – he certainly seems like someone who can have a great film career, much like Christoph Waltz (who was also somewhat an unknown, if only to Western audiences, that had his breakthrough in a film about World War II). His performance here just wasn’t that compelling, which is really upsetting because I fully expected him to give my favorite performance of the year.
A final thought – Son of Saul is not that bad. It is just disappointing. But there are two brilliant moments that I really thought were absolutely moving – the beginning scene, where a group of prisoners are led into a gas chamber, and we see Saul’s face as he hears their cries for help (an intense and very shocking moment), and the final scene where Saul sees a young boy in the forest, and the camera lingers on his smiling face. These two moments were only two short moments in an otherwise dull film, but they were both absolutely brilliant and managed to salvage this film a lot.
Son of Saul is not a great film. But to be perfectly honest, it was still a good film – but it did not live up to the hype and buzz in any way. It was mostly dull and convoluted, and nothing has made me sadder than typing those words. I thought this film would be a transcendent and life-changing experiment, but instead it is just a middling, average Holocaust drama, and one that could’ve been so much better. Historically, it is a good film to watch, but it has very few merits other than that. I really wanted to adore this film, and the moral of the story is that no matter how much your gut tells you a film will be great, never blindly support something, because when it doesn’t meet your expectations, it is a dreadful feeling. Its not a bad film – I just wish it was better. Much better.