Son Of Saul – Review

“SON OF SAUL”

If you recall my article from a couple of months back where I made my picks for the Oscars I mentioned that I didn’t take up the category of Best Film In A Foreign Language for 2 reasons,

  1. 1) these films tend to be released in very few cinemas and
    2) for a limited time only
so it’s difficult to pick them up and the fact that many of them haven’t been released in the UK, including at that time the obvious winner Son of Saul, which I felt if I hadn’t seen I couldn’t make a decent call on the category. Son of Saul did at least have a release date for which I have now taken advantage of and I even got an advanced screening of the film at the Picture House which means that this will be 2 firsts for the Film Society, the first time we get a review out on release day and this is also the first foreign language film that we are reviewing for the site outside of an Anime.

All the above summations of Son of Saul being the obvious winner were correct, it did end up taking the Oscar for Best Film In A Foreign Language, the second time a Hungarian film has taken the prize and it’s a real credit, you don’t get nominated for an Oscar unless your film is somewhat competent (unless you’re Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge in which case I have no idea what happened).

The film is directed by Laszlo Nemes who also co-writes the film with Clara Royer and this is the first time I have seen one of his films having not seen any of the short films he had made prior to this. but he must be a decent director after receiving an Oscar nomination for his first feature length film. However with the Oscar not being a complete guarantee of success I was going into the film not expecting it to be perfect, but I was also going into it in that instance rather worried because when you are reviewing a film about a very dark and serious subject, in this case the Holocaust, any criticism you give can come off as being rather insensitive and childish or risk trivialising the subject altogether. I want to make it clear that any criticism I give is about the film only, I have no intention of trivialising the savagery and un-mitigating human misery and tragedy that was the Holocaust, I am purely judging this as a film. With that out the way how did Son of Saul turn out?

Son of Saul tells the story of a labour worker in Auschwitz called Saul who attempts to bury the body of a boy who may or may not be his son. That’s really it, there’s not much else to this film’s plot, that’s what we really should focus on. In essence when it actually does that the film is really good. This film runs a very high risk that because Saul is the main character and our only real focus, the film risks labelling this as his tragedy rather than the tragedy of thousands. Luckily I would say the film doesn’t make that mistake thanks to a few really strong scenes, especially a really strong harrowing scene at the beginning of the film, if the rest of the film had been like that I wouldn’t have any complaints about the film. Sadly, however, the rest of the film is not entirely like this, while this film has some really strong scenes it also has some terrible pacing issues. Seriously this film is padded too much with sub plots and other factors going on and while that would be kind of useful to give us a wider scope of what is going on it really distracts from the main plot, which is what I wish the focus was on and it’s very clear that this has come from a director that has only directed short films up to this point though when it does focus on the main plot it’s good. That being said, I think Son of Saul could have worked as a shorter film, in fact this film could have been 30-45 minutes to similar or greater effect. I want to feel the pain and tragedy of the Holocaust but the film feels so jumbled that it only gives us that effect momentarily and I think there have been several films that have done the subject better, but there are several other factors that go in to it outside of the plot that I will get in to. I’ve heard several critics say this film is very personal to Saul’s character and that’s what they like about the film and I will admit that aspect of the film but I think that causes another slight problem that I’ll get into later.

The story feels very lost as a lot of the sub plots and other things going on, the film feels longer than it is. The film comes in at 107 minutes, just over 1hr 40mins including credits, however it feels longer, it feels much more like 2hr long. I’m making it sound like this film is awful but in reality I actually think this is a pretty decent movie overall because what it does well it does very well. The film’s strongest point is its visual story telling, while the first act may be the worst part of the film because this is where the padding issues really are most prominent it’s also the point where the film has some excellent visual story telling which it carries throughout most of the film, even though the second half becomes a bit more dialogue heavy than the first half was. This film understands the first rule of film making very well, show, don’t tell. Saul actually has very little dialogue and doesn’t have much narration, we experience most of the film through his actions and his facial expressions and the actor really gives off a man who has been broken to the point that this is his only reason to keep living and again when it focuses on this the film is pretty damm good, I just wish it had been the entire focus rather than the jumbled film that we got in the end. Oh well, review the film you got rather than the film you want and I would be lying if I said Son of Saul was without merit. Many of the really strong scenes are incredibly harrowing and emotional and I completely see why the film won the Oscar based on those scenes alone and it’s very good at reminding us that the Holocaust is very recent history. On that basis I would say this was a decent film, but I can’t ignore a lot of the technical issues with the film which I will go into later. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the sub plots and a lot of what goes on is this film as I think a lot of my complaints with the film may not the complaints of other people. I think the thing that people most praised about this film when it was shown at film festivals last year is both a strength and a weakness. The entire film is filmed from the back of Saul and through various other camera angles that means that Saul is the entire focus of the movie. This could be interpreted as this film is meant to be an experience as in ‘we are meant to see ourselves in Saul’, but they focus on him too much of a defined character for that to really work, however, it does feel like we are following Saul around this facility and that is a very decent strength of the film. There are other aspects of this film that means that doesn’t quite work and other than that it’s also the fact that so much of this film feels like it could have been cut, but I have harped on enough about that. Honestly, I am not going to go into too much detail about the plot just because I want people to experience the film for themselves and make up their own minds because I believe a lot of peoples won’t have the same complaints that I had, but my personal opinions is that I find the plot to be a bit of a mixed bag. When it’s strong, it’s very strong, but when it’s weak, it’s very weak but that is only my opinion I’ve heard several people say they love this film so more power to them.

As for the acting, it’s superb. I can’t fault the actors in any sense of the word, especially considering that this film had actors speaking in 3 or 4 different languages, most of the film is in Hungarian though there are a lot of lines in German and a couple of lines are in Yiddish as well. Special praise should definitely go to Geza Rohrig who plays Saul fantastically throughout this film and could have easily been deserving of a best actor Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast deliver excellent performances as well and their performances are the strongest part of this movie, however I really wanted to point out him because he also proves he is an excellent physical actor. I also felt the German actors playing the Nazi’s also really did an excellent job and really sold the incredibly dark side of the film perfectly. I won’t go into too much detail as it’s a bit difficult to judge performances in a language that you don’t entirely speak but I really felt the cast gave very strong performances overall.

As for the cinematography, this is where I have one of the most interesting points about the film for two reasons. The first reason is that the version I saw of this film was shot on 35mm film, however that’s not the only option of seeing the film and I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in that, there’s a reason that we all switch to digital projectors and while I do think it gives an interesting experience, and I wouldn’t entirely rule it out if it is available in your area, I really wouldn’t recommend it. The second reason is that half of this film if not the majority is filmed from the back of Saul or to the side of him, we rarely venture off from that and as a result because it’s filmed from his back and we are meant to be experiencing it through him, many of the backgrounds are shot out of focus and that’s as shame because there is a ton of period accuracy and some excellent set designs but I’m not allowed to appreciate them because the shot is out of focus as we are focusing on Saul! Admittedly this does bug me more than it should, but I really did not enjoy the film’s cinematography mostly for that reason. When we break away from Saul to much wider shots the film has excellent cinematography, however, when it tries to be Birdman, while it does kind of put us in Saul’s shoes it means it’s at the sacrifice of the brilliant sets and that’s just not really on in my book.

This review may be short but that’s really because I don’t feel much for this film in all honesty, I like it, but I don’t fully like it, it’s negatives are so glaring that I can’t say it’s a great movie. I should want to experience a harrowing drama that brings home the tragedy of the Holocaust, but I am kind of left with something that when it focuses on what it does well it’s excellent, when it tries to focus on anything else it feels rather padded and overlong. However, my opinion is not shared by many people so there is clearly many people who thought this film was cinematic genius. I really want to share there opinion but I can’t because I’d be lying to you and myself . As it stands I can only recommend it to fans of Art House Cinema as I think they will get a kick out of it on its cinematography alone. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike this film because it’s tackling a difficult subject and it’s a sad film, far from it, I can definitely appreciate films that try to do that type of story telling and for the most part it works, but it has too many technical issues that I cannot overlook. I don’t know, am I getting too picky? The found a quote on a metacritic review that gave the film 5/10 and it said that he/she appreciated the film more than he/she liked it and that matches my opinion pretty well . Son of Saul comes out in most cinemas today so if it is in your area go and check it out and tell me if you agree with me, or wait for it to come out on DVD, I don’t think it will be too long till that happens.

I wanted this film to be an experience, but in reality I kind of just felt like I was going along with it and going through the motions, but I suspect this film will get a lot of good praise and there are a lot of strong things about this film so it does deserve some.

As for films between this and The Jungle Book, well I only saw one film between these and that was ‘Eye In The Sky’. Put simply, this film is fantastic, this is probably the best thriller I have seen in a cinema since ‘Gone Girl’, it’s absolutely fantastic, giving a very interesting balanced look at modern warfare and had some fantastic performances from Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman in his final performance. Seriously check this one out it’s one of the best films of 2016 so far. I don’t like to use the term ‘edge of your seat’ because I think it’s a real idiotic term done by marketing executives and half the time it doesn’t really apply to peoples experiences watching a film, but there’s some really tense moments in it. It’s still in cinemas now so check it out if you get the chance.

Well, I think it’s time we get back to a lighter subject now Son of Saul is out of the way, but before we do, if you have any opinions about this film or Eye In The Sky, please leave a comment and don’t forget you can submit your own reviews or content by visiting our ‘how to submit’ section, plus remember you can follow me on Twitter to see what I am getting up to.

Next Friday I am back to my comic book movie fix. Come back on 6 May when I review “Captain America Civil War” just in time for it’s release in the US.

Thanks for reading my review, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it and remember just because movie is tackling a difficult subject it doesn’t automatically make it good.

Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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The Next Axia6th July 2022
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