Son of Saul

Feb 11, 2016

One of the best movies of 2015 and one of the best Holocaust stories you'll ever see.

Son of Saul

Grade:  A

Director: Laszlo Nemes

Screenplay: Nemes, Clara Royer

Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molinar

Rating: R

Runtime: 107 min

by John DeSando

"You've betrayed the living to help the dead."

Some Holocaust movies are invariably held up against a realism template and fall short largely because that “banality” is not at all banal—it is unimaginably gruesome and impossible to translate onto any screen. Yet, Son of Saul, while heavily dosing its story with the horror, succeeds because the physical terror is kept in the background and the individual suffering in the foreground.

Saul (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew, as a Sonderkommando, bought a few months of life by taking a job stripping the valuables from those who were being gassed and burning the bodies. He travels most of the film looking for a rabbi to say prayers for his son’s secret burial. The introductory quote shows what another Jew thinks of Saul’s mission.

Although we never know if the body is that of his son, the allegorical underpinning is clear: An act of humanity will arise somewhere in this inferno.

Director Laszlo Nemes skillfully navigates his camera glued to Saul through Auschwitz, tightly hanging on to the protagonist’s face as he searches. In some ways, I was reminded of the traveling “one take” camera in Birdman.

The uniqueness of this journey is that the major horrors like gassing, burning, and burying are frequently kept in a background blur (no deep focus here) so that the humane hero can be unimpeded in his own final solution. While there are distinct minor characters, the film is wholly owned by Saul, a surrogate for us, who witnesses atrocities but remains undeterred in his quest.

Like Night and Fog, the most powerful of documentaries, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the most child-like fiction, this film needs not crush us with realism; rather it lets us see and hear death faintly without revolting us or sending us into deep sadness. Not necessary because our imaginations will do the heavy lifting.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at