Son of Saul: Hell on Earth

Filmmaker Laszlo Nemes makes a striking and auspicious feature debut with Son of Saul, (original title Saul sia) a harrowing, vividly realized Holocaust drama that’s the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.

The Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig, who resembles the young Francois Truffaut and who makes an equally auspicious feature debut, plays the title role, a Hungarian Jew and “trusty” at Auschwitz during World War II. It’s his job to assist the Nazis in burying and burning bodies, scrubbing down the showers, going through prisoners’ valuables, and other dirty tasks. For this he receives slightly better treatment from the guards, and usually worse treatment from his fellow prisoners – some of whom, not incorrectly, denounce him as a collaborator.

When Saul discovers the body of a boy he believes to be his son, he embarks on a desperate, obsessive crusade to give him a proper burial, replete with the Kaddish from a rabbi. It would seem suicidal, but given his surroundings it’s clear that each second he’s imprisoned brings Saul closer to his inevitable fate. It’s entirely possible that his mind has simply snapped, given the horrors he witnesses – and participates in – on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.

With Nemes’ camera literally perched on Rohrig’s shoulder, Son of Saul follows him through the depths of degradation. Saul is our “guide” to the inner sanctum of a concentration camp. Understandably, this is not an easy movie, but it is a fearless and overwhelming one – and it offers a different perspective than other movies about the Holocaust. It’s not an easy film to watch, an impossible one to enjoy, but it demands attention and is fully deserving of respect and reverence – and, indeed, the Oscar. (In Hungarian, Yiddish, German and Polish with English subtitles)

Son of Saul opens Friday