Strong direction, performances, technical skill, research, and yet, it is a "ride" movie
I am really torn by Son of Saul (Saul Fia). It's a technical and acting achievement, to be sure. It doesn't feel like a first film. So bravo to László Nemes for pulling it off. And the film achieves what it sets out to do. So using my own criteria of what makes a good film, I should be giving it a higher score. But I can't. In the end, what was it? It was a decent into madness. It was a "ride" film, that pulled its protagonist and us along for some dramatic moments in Auschwitz, 1944.
Let's get the technical achievement kudos out there first. This movie was shot on 35mm in Academy Aperture. It is shot almost entirely in close-up, on the head of the protagonist, with most action occurring in his (and our) peripheral vision, out of focus. The effect is obvious. When he is pushed or pulled, so are we. We are right there, next to his head, seeing everything, and also sometimes looking away.
Direction - outstanding. Nemes gets great performances out of his actors. He sets and maintains the tone. He did a fine job. Hollywood would destroy this movie. They would give us wide angle establishing shots and dramatic prisoner monologues. Not here. This is a corner of a huge prison, with just a few locations, and most dialogue is in whispers. A network of whispers. The research is apparent. I was reminded by several survivor accounts of Auschwitz watching this.
Géza Röhrig has an amazing face. I imagine him getting the part simply by showing up to his audition and starting at the director. He is incredible. But so is the story, and that's where this film lost me.
** Strong spoilers ahead **
This movie is about a condemned man who has lost his humanity. Everyone has. However, in a most desperate attempt to do something humane, as a final mission, he commits himself to the insane task of burying a young boy who miraculously survived the gas chamber, but was fished off by a Nazi doctor. It might be his bastard son. But we will never know. The boy's death triggers his overwhelming motivation in this film. But, as one would suppose, his mission fails, step by tragic step. He is unable to bury the boy within 24 hours as directed by Jewish law. He believes he needs a rabbi to assist him in the burial, to say the kaddish as the boy is put into a hole. He risks getting shot multiple times in his quest for rabbi, and gets several of the his fellow prisoners killed in the process. He has a second mission given to him, but he fails it in pursuit of his personal mission. "You have betrayed the living for the dead," his closest fellow Soderkommando tells him.
While critics praise the film for it's humanity, I didn't see it. The story is about insanity. What a man will do when he goes insane. At that point, it becomes clear that he will reach a dead end and be shot trying to bury the boy somewhere on the prison grounds.
But no. In the second half, the movie becomes a "ride." Think Gravity, but in a death camp. I was impressed by the second night sequence in this film. It's small, in terms of what went into the production, but it feels massive. It's one set piece after another. Our Sonderkommando is pushed and pulled into various locations; from speaking to a Nazi commander, to pushing coal for the crematorium, to obtaining inside information about his imminent execution, to being saved by one or more prisoners or prisoner-kappos (think wranglers of prisoners by prisoners). At this point, he and we are passengers, seeing events that really took place (not necessarily in the same month of 1944). The close calls are amazing, but also, somewhat unbelievable. He intercepts a line of new arrivals being shot and burned, and is nearly shot. He makes the cut of Sonderkommandos to be spared, but in thrust into a rebellion by the survivors. Then, he becomes one of the few prisoners to ever escape into the Polish woods outside the camp, and still manages to re- locate and carry the boy's body, now wrapped in a sack. At that point, I had to give-up on this movie. We all know how this ends. He wouldn't be able to dig a hole on the prison grounds. But now the film is going to give us that scene outside the prison. Incredible, and not in a good way.
And so, in the end, I had to give this a thumbs down. We cannot allow ourselves to avoid criticizing films due to their subject matter. The Killing Fields sucked. And, the more I think about it, so did this. We need to preserve history. But we need to be able to question why a Hungarian director's decisions.