Movies about World War II, and especially ones about the Holocaust, have always been recognised as a well-worn setting for what are colloquially referred to as ‘Oscar bait’. It's a trope so widely accepted that even American Dad has made fun of it. So with Son of Saul winning Best Foreign Language at this year’s Academy Awards, it may convince people that it’s just a piece preaching to the choir about the horrible events of the Holocaust to win awards. However, it deserves far more than that assumption gives it.
Told entirely from the protagonist’s perspective, the camera very rarely leaves his focus and he is nearly always in shot. The framing of this is deliberate, helped by the aspect ratio being 1.375:1 almost in a ‘portrait’ to hone in on our lead. This is done to create a claustrophobic feel and to put the audience right there with the character; as he walks around the corpses and misery, we walk with him. This uncomfortable and personal approach leads us to wonder what would it be like to live like this.
Son of Saul focuses on Sonderkommando, prisoners of the Holocaust forced to dispose of the bodies of the gas chamber victims. Saul Auslander notices a young boy’s body and claims it to be his son. We follow him as he struggles to find a rabbi to properly bury him as several prisoners around him plan a rebellion.
So you’re probably asking what separates this from other Holocaust movies. Well, for one, it’s about the victims of the Holocaust. Outside of one scene, the SS are rarely focused on and we spend nearly all our time with Saul and the prisoners. Similar to 12 Years a Slave, though one of the key differences is that this film really explores that morality of living in a place where you struggle to survive. What do you say to avoid death? What actions to you take on your fellow man? One of the biggest struggles in the narrative is just watching what these people were forced to do to survive. What’s impressive is that it never takes a ‘stance’ or side in terms of the morality; what you see is what you get, and you’re left to make up your own mind about the character’s actions, especially near the end as Saul’s obsession to bury the boy gets heightened.
It’s also a beautiful work of filmmaking. As well as the perfect camera work, there’s also the sound design. Every clank is heard, every scream echoes, and every nanosecond of sound is used to create this amazing disquieting reality. It truly is a beautiful combination of audio and visual: the tight framing puts you in a space while the sounds remind you of the horrors around it.
Really, you could talk for days about Son of Saul. Every aching moment, every melancholy scene, every tragic line. But it’s better off to see it and experience it for yourself lest you have the experience ruined. Son of Saul is a beautiful parable about the misery humans inflict upon each other. Absolutely check it out.