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Foreign-Film Oscar Winner 'Son of Saul' Looks at Holocaust Through Eyes of One Prisoner

22 Apr, 2016 By: Stephanie Prange

Many films and documentaries have taken on the subject of the Holocaust during World War II, but none have portrayed it as does Son of Saul, the Academy Award and Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign-Language film.

The acclaimed title is available April 26 on Blu-ray Disc, DVD and digital from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Son of Saul looks at the horror through the eyes of a member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in exterminating their brethren. Director László Nemes learned of this extraordinary group of victims by reading their buried accounts.

“I first read the documents that were written by the members of the crematoria, the Sonderkommando that were working at the crematoria in Auschwitz, and I read the documents that they secretly wrote in 1944. The documents were found after the war,” he said. “When I read those so-called ‘Scrolls of Auschwitz’ it was such a devastating experience and an immersion into the very heart of the extermination machine that I wanted to find a way in cinematic terms to tell a story that would take place within the framework of the Sonderkommando.”

Not only was the subject of Son of Saul a unique look at the Holocaust, but the film also took a unique approach by portraying the story narrowly through the eyes of one member of the group, Saul. The camera stays tight on his face or perched over his shoulder as he navigates his way through the camp, trying to obtain a burial for a boy he says is his son.

“I really wanted to bring the experience of watching this film to the level of one individual and try to speak about the plight of one individual that’s caught in this dreadful world,” Nemes said. “The trickiest thing was how to convey the idea of the limited amount of information that one can have access to, of the frenzy, of the incapacity to know at the moment what’s about to happen, and these are at the heart of the concentration camp experience. I wanted to find to a way to express those ideas in a very organic, visceral way, and we narrowed down the focus of the film to this close-up in a way to say that this is the individual experience.”

The first shot, a blurry forest scene that focuses in on Saul, establishes this viewpoint, letting the audience know “that the access to the environment is problematic, ” Nemes said.

For the character of Saul, Nemes cast Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian actor who had not worked in years, but who Nemes felt embodied the character.

“He had a sort of quality that’s very rare in actors, a mixture of being sort of ordinary and being almost like a saint at the same time,” Nemes said. “There’s something religious, spiritual, gleaming in him. The mixture had to be there in order to carry the film.”

In addition to blurriness and the point-of-view shots, sound also plays a role in immersing the viewer in Saul’s experience in the camp.

“The sound, it’s always there to suggest that there’s much more than the image,” Nemes said. “It’s a constant reference point and gives a sort of intuition of all the incredible destruction that’s taking place all around. It is in a way merciless. It just doesn’t give shelter. I think we show the human experience within the concentration camp, not only with the narrowness of the image but also with the layers of sounds.”

Constructing those sounds of humanity around Saul took five months.

“It’s made of layers of voices, human voices in all kinds of languages,” Nemes said. “It’s sort of a constant babble of languages that collide, and I think we needed all those human voices, be it orders or whimpers, in all languages, and I think it gives that sort of human texture, the constant hum of human presence throughout the film.”

It was an intricate process to assemble the cacophony of the camp.

“We had to have a very complicated dialog in all languages and have the actors that we needed from different countries, and we organized all kinds of recordings and re-recordings,” Nemes said. “Everything had to be documented and researched, and the historical advisor did that, so it was a very lengthy process.”

While the sound conveys what is happening, Saul looks away.

“He is not looking at the horror that is taking place around because he is now used to it in a way,” Nemes said. “He has the defensive mechanisms of his brain forced him into sort of retreat.”

Narrowing the picture, but bombarding viewers with sound, forces them to “use their imagination to reconstruct in their mind the scope of the suffering taking place,” Nemes said.

“I want the viewer to be on a journey,” he said. “The viewer has to decide whether the quest of the main character has a value. I’m not willing to prefabricate all emotions and feelings for the viewer. I trust the viewer much more.”

In the end, viewers can decide whether Saul’s quest to bury one boy is admirable, sad or simply mad.

“I think it’s an archaic force, a primitive force in human nature that there are things that go beyond religions and cultures and that have to do possibly with the human spirit itself,” Nemes said. “It’s not an intellectual choice, but it’s an instinctive choice of the main character to stick to the only sign of humanity and its choices, meaning burying the dead, giving a significance, a history to one as opposed to all of these bodies being burned around him and erased from the planet.”


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