The holocaust remains one of the most appalling blemishes in human history. Even throughout mankind’s darkest hours, though, there can still be moments of inspiration. Son of Saul, this year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, doesn’t shy away from the horrors prisoners faced at concentration camps. That’s not the focus of the movie, though. The real focus centers on our resolute protagonist, who refuses to give up his cause despite the evils that surround him.
Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian poet turned actor, is captivating as Saul, a Jewish man who’s forced to incinerate bodies at Auschwitz. One day, Saul comes across a corpse that appears to be his estranged son. Although everyone says the young boy must burn with the others, Saul hides the body and sets out to find a rabbi who can help give him a traditional burial. In order to do so, however, Saul must put his own life on the line.
There’s hardly a moment in Son of Saul where something horrific isn’t taking place. In almost every scene, a naked body is being carried to the crematorium or a Nazi is taking another innocent life. What’s incredible is how director László Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoot such haunting imagery with great subtlety. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to simply shock the audience with a lot of blatant, graphic imagery. Yet, much of the carnage takes place off screen or in the background. Standing front and center at all times is the hell-bent Saul, who acts as a beacon of courage.
Röhrig portrays one of the most compelling main characters in any movie ever made about the holocaust. Saul is constantly horrified by the atrocities he encounters. Regardless, he keeps going in a conquest to redeem himself. We never learn Saul’s entire backstory. All we need to know is that he could never do right by his son in life, but will risk everything to do right by him in death. Not a second goes by where we don’t feel all of Saul’s fear and unrelenting determination.
Saul’s ultimate goal may seem minor compared to one of the film’s subplots, which depicts several Sonderkommandos revolting against their captors. During the holocaust, though, even the smallest of victories meant a big win for the human spirit. I won’t give away where Saul’s journey takes him in the end. Let’s just say it leaves us on a note that demonstrates there’s always hope no matter how grim the world appears.