If there is a sure-thing during this year's Oscar ceremony, it is that Son of Saul will take home the prize as the year's best foreign film. The reason is simple: This anything-but-simple experience is devastating, memorable and, thus, one of the best films of the year in any category.
It's been a full five months since I've seen Son of Saul and I still can't shake it.
The reason I use the word "experience" to describe the viewing of this film is that I vividly remember the sobbing from fellow movie-goers who told me, upon exiting the theater, that their previous conceptions of the Holocaust from other films—Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, etc.—were turned inside out. Son of Saul instead appears to be less about the spectacle of the Holocaust and more about the individuals suffering through it. As a result, its entirely self-conscious exposition makes it possibly the best film yet made about the Holocaust.
First-time director Laszlo Nemes chooses to fix his (and our) attention on head-and-shoulder close-ups of one particular Auschwitz inmate, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), one of the concentration camp's so-called Sonderkommandos, charged with delaying their own deaths by assisting the Nazis in burning the dead. One day, Saul discovers a boy who has somehow survived the gas chamber but died shortly thereafter. Instead of taking the boy to a burning pit, he instead embarks on a mad hunt to find a rabbi to help him bury the child, who Saul insists is his son.
The source material of Son of Saul is a remarkable collection of testimonies from Sonderkommando survivors in The Scrolls of Auschwitz. Nemes, who lost a number of his own family at Auschwitz, told a premiere audience at the Toronto International Film Festival that he was particularly appalled at previous Hollywood attempts to depict the Holocaust, taking particular aim at Schindler's List as an example of filmmakers' habit of injecting their stories with melodrama. Instead, he said, he wanted to explore the ambiguity of tragedy. As Saul negotiates from one level of misery to another—from gas chamber to crematorium—he searches for a sense of self in a selfless hell by clinging to the corpse of a strange child.
Nemes, using a now-unconventional 35-millimeter camera positioned about 20 inches from his subjects' faces, ensures the audience is not allowed to look away.
Son of Saul has already picked up the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was named the best foreign film of the year by practically every critics association. The Oscar is inevitable and couldn't be more well deserved.