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‘Son of Saul’ Deserves Oscar Attention

‘Son of Saul’ Deserves Oscar Attention

         Just when you
think you’ve seen every possible aspect of the World War II Holocaust
experience, along comes a film like Son
of Saul
to remind us that there are an infinite number of stories to be
told under this umbrella—and daring ways to tell them. In a dazzling debut,
director László Nemes (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer) immerses
us in one man’s desperate search for meaning and humanity in a hellish
environment. Told in an almost unbroken series of hand-held closeups, we follow
Saul, one of the Jewish Sonderkommandos whose lives are temporarily spared in
return for preparing their fellow Jews for extermination at Auschwitz and
cleaning up after their demise in the gas chambers.

         When a boy
survives the initial gas attack, Saul becomes obsessed with seeing that he is
given a proper burial by a rabbi, as if this act will grant him some form of
short-term salvation. That is the essence of Son of Saul, a gripping film in which all the horrors of a
concentration camp are depicted as a blur in the background or kept offscreen
altogether. We are never unaware of what is going on, but our focus is on Saul
in the foreground, as he navigates the tricky line between his Jewish overseers
and the Nazi guards who determine their fate. Like filmmaker Nemes, this
represents a screen debut for actor Géza Röhrig, whose understated performance
is simply extraordinary.

         Son of Saul captures the surreal
atmosphere of Auschwitz in 1944, where the unthinkable is taking place every
day and the drone-like Sonderkommandos are expected to carry out their horrific
tasks without comment or hesitation. Nemes sees to it that we never question
the authenticity of the story or the fate awaiting our hero if he makes one
wrong move.

         To pull off
such a bravura act of filmmaking is a formidable achievement. No wonder Son of Saul won the Grand Jury Prize and
other honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and why it is a major
contender for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It
would certainly get my vote. 

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