Films about the Holocaust generally have a desire to be big films, which comes with the baggage of telling many stories and having something approaching a note of hope. Son of Saul, on the other hand, is telling a story so focused that the camera rarely leaves the face of its protagonist. The entire film is shot in close-up, long-take, and notably not in wide-screen, which is a curse in that we are constantly forced into the same hellish space as protagonist Saul, but a blessing in that the blurry backgrounds prevents the entire picture from being too overwhelming. In addition to numbing us to the surroundings of the dead and dying, putting us in Saul’s weary headspace, it also gives every moment a distinct urgency, like every minute is a task to accomplish in a mission. It’s also incredibly exhausting in a very physical sense, rather than the normal emotional exhaustion that comes with this territory.
Son of Saul may well be among the bleaker of its ilk, but its avoidance of cliche and catharsis is to be commended. Its a nightmarish vision of hell and can be read as a story of trying to find a way to exert agency in the face of hopelessness. It was a tough watch, but one that will stick with me for some time.
SPOILERS BELOW (highlight to read)
For all its new style behind the camera, behind the pen the film marries the intimate style with a classic trick: the unreliable narrator. By putting us in Saul’s headspace so thoroughly, he gains our trust immediately. I had assumed that the titular son of Saul was Saul’s son for most of the running time, but him being Saul’s delusion and stand-in for guilt works so much better thanks to putting us there with him.