One of the expected additions each year to the list is the winner for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars; or, if not the winner, at least one of the nominees. Sure enough, the editors chose Son of Saul, or Saul fia, and in the same way that they chose Ida the year before, it seems like a selection made entirely by rote as opposed to actually being a worthy watch or a truly must see film. World War II films are a dime a dozen; I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again. So when I went into Son of Saul, I wanted to know what was different or unique about it to warrant the watch. To that end, in my usual research, I found out the film, and the main character, takes place in the Sonderkommando of a Jewish extermination camp, which I don’t believe I’ve seen a film cover before, and thus provided me with enough of a different or uniqueness to the proceedings that seemed to justify the watch… at least at first.
For what it’s worth, I’d never heard of the Sonderkommando before this film, and I looked them up to make sure I’d know what was going on, which I was thankful for doing so, as it made a lot of the unspoken plot advancements that took place in the film a lot clearer, so if you’re unsure of exactly what this film is doing or what’s taking place, you might want to do a small bit of research as well.
Saul Auslander is a Hungarian Jew chosen to work as a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, where he assists in the maintaining of the gas chambers in exchange for not being executed himself. It’s during one such cleanup that he finds a young boy who somehow survived the gassing, who is promptly taken aside and suffocated as Saul watches. Having recognized the boy, he sets about finding a rabbi among the survivors, who can assist him in smuggling the boy’s corpse outside the walls of Auschwitz and giving him a proper burial. Really, there’s not very much more to this one than that; there’s a subplot involving a planned uprising among the other Sonderkommando in Saul’s unit that comes to the forefront near the end of the film, but this is ostensibly all about Saul and his search to put the boy to proper rest. You might be concerned, with the plot synopsis that I’ve given, that the film doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot or narrative to really hold interest during the entire watch, and unfortunately, your concerns would be justified; there’s really not enough plot here to warrant even the average running time this film has. What makes Son of Saul at least barely worth the watch is how it is made and presented. In addition to the 1.375:1 aspect ratio, a much more narrow field of view and square framing akin to Ida the year before, the film crops the image slightly in the corners, giving the picture a look much like watching the film through the eyepiece of an old 35mm camera. Also, the film takes place almost entirely over the shoulder, both front and back, of Saul himself, with an extremely shallow depth of field, so that often the only things in focus during the film are Saul and anyone or anything directly next to him, creating a very insular point of view, as if the world outside of Saul’s immediate periphery is glazed over to reject the importance and horror of everything around him, much like the personality of Saul as shown in the beginning of the film. It’s quite interesting to watch, but risks becoming a novelty too soon during the film’s running time, since the plot of the film isn’t what’s holding us through the whole thing. Additional compliments to Geza Rohrig, who plays Saul, and who has one of the most interesting faces I’ve seen in modern foreign film, which helps us empathize with Saul even when he is not talking, or whispering along with everyone else.
I feel like I’ve already said everything there is for me to say about Son of Saul; it’s interesting to look at, but not for 107 minutes, and the plot doesn’t do enough to fill in the empty portions of our attention span when the film’s interesting point of view becomes much less so. It also suffers from a similar malady as last year’s winner Ida: there isn’t really a point to anything or any part of the story on the screen; the story is just told, and that’s that, and what’s a little frustrating about it is that the story told never feels worth the while. I generally liked Son of Saul, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or that I was entertained; it felt more like I was watching it because I was expected to, a necessity that unfortunately left me underwhelmed by how unnecessary it really was. I can see why it won Best Foreign Language Film, but there isn’t enough here to really sell this film to an audience outside the art house niche, which is a bit of a disappointment in and of itself.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10