It’s 1944 and Auschwitz is full of horrors. But “Son of Saul” is less a Holocaust story and more of a story of finding a glimmer of morality. Saul, a Hungarian prisoner (Géza Röhrig) who helps the Nazi soldiers steal valuables off of the people sentenced to the gas chambers, tries to salvage the body of an unknown boy, but he’s faced with the difficulty of trying to do so in the closely guarded and controlled concentration camp. Over the course of the film Saul slowly begins to claim that the young boy for whom he’s trying to give a funeral to is his son. A delusion that only fuels Saul’s conviction.
Director László Nemes focuses heavily on the Sonderkommando, Jews who worked at concentration camps and received slightly better treatment but weren’t guaranteed life either. The movie’s entire perspective takes place in close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots of Saul walking or interacting with other prisoners. Nemes’s film doesn’t judge the Holocaust directly and even shies away from showing us any death onscreen, even though it’s clear that it’s happening all around Saul. There is a gas chamber scene and screaming throughout, but Nemes takes a less conventional route to depict the horrors of the Holocaust and instead gives Saul a moral purpose that fuels his inner fire, giving him purpose and hope.
“Son of Saul,” however, isn’t an easy film to sit through. There isn’t very much dialogue and it’s entirely too slow-paced for it to be rewarding. The premise is a great one, but to endure it is something else entirely. Scenes weave in and out of various places as Saul searches for a rabbi, a dangerous attempt, to conduct the funeral. It’s obvious the condition of the camp is terrible, but so focused is Saul in his mission to give the boy a funeral that everything else falls into the background without a second thought. In this vein, the film is very abstract and deceiving in that it’s set during the Holocaust, but doesn’t acknowledge political issues, the devastation happening, or anything else having to do with justice or morals. And so the film could have been set anywhere else and no one would have been the wiser.
Ultimately, one can appreciate the efforts “Son of Saul” takes to give a different perspective from the days of Auschwitz, but the events unfold too slowly and feel too stagnant to be considered a film truly worth watching. The way it’s shot is really well done, but for all that anyone can get behind Saul’s insistence in doing something so human in the wake of something so inhumane, the film doesn’t really resonate.