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Son of Saul

(2015) *** 1/2 R
107 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: László Nemes. Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, 'Kecske' Molnár Leve..., Urs Rechn.

/content/films/4869/1.jpgTo attempt to encapsulate the unfathomable experience of the Holocaust in a narrative film would seem to be a fool’s errand, although that hasn’t stopped scores of filmmakers from trying, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of awards for dealing with this most serious of topics. (Playing “herself” on Ricky Gervais’ Extras a few years before winning Best Actress for a Holocaust film, Kate Winslet opined, “If you do a film about the Holocaust, [you're] guaranteed an Oscar.”) The Holocaust may be awards bait, but it is also a cultural minefield, demanding sensitivity and a storytelling angle that avoids the appearance of exploitation. Though unavoidably controversial, the Hungarian film Son of Saul succeeds in its dramatic aims through its focus on one man’s last grasp at humanity amidst the dehumanizing horrors of Auschwitz.

Son of Saul marks the feature-filmmaking debut of László Nemes (who also co-scripted the film with Clara Royer). A former assistant to Béla Tarr, Nemes has learned from that master the power of simplicity and restraint, to the degree that any depiction of the workings of a concentration camp can be restrained. Eschewing wide establishing shots, Son of Saul plays its action disorientingly tight as it follows sonderkommando Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), in his face, at the back of his head, or just behind his shoulder as he moves through the Dantean “Inferno” of Auschwitz. The sonderkommando were prisoners conscribed, in short terms, into leading fellow Jews from the transports into the showers, and then removing the corpses for the next round. The soul-deadening job has already taken its toll on Saul, for whom literal death is promised soon.

But the miraculous survival of a boy breaks through to Saul, and even when the boy’s life has been extinguished, Saul’s flame of humanity continues to flicker. In spite of his pronounced survival instinct, Saul goes on a desperate, single-minded quest for a phyrric victory: a proper Jewish burial for the boy, who Saul immediately claims as his son. Is Saul telling the truth about his parentage? Is he delusional? Is it a lie of expedience? Or a lie he chooses to believe? Nemes doesn’t answer these questions, suggesting that any answer would be smaller than the larger truth.

Make no mistake: Son of Saul is a visceral and emotionally draining experience, full-immersion from its surround-sonic onslaught and visual cues (like out-of-focus masses of bodies, live and dead, clothed and naked) to its psychoanalysis of its haunted protagonist. Röhrig powerfully realizes Saul’s studied nonchalance around his Nazi oppressors spinning into a widening gyre of anxiety and reawakened humanity. Nemes’ deeply moving film dramatizes those extraordinary circumstances under which even the meanings of life and death become foreign and in desperate need of rediscovery.

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Aspect ratios: 1.39:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 4/26/2016

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony delivers another winner in the hi-def A/V department (with robust bonus features) in its Blu-ray + Digital special edition release of Son of Saul. In my film-critic "market (the San Francisco Bay Area) and, I suspect at least some others, Son of Saul was exclusively screened on film, from celluloid prints. All bets were off once awards season came around, and Sony Pictures Classics provided voters, including awards-body critics, with DVDs for presumable second viewings or, in a pinch, first viewings. I mention all this by way of emphasizing the filmmakers' desire to preserve a filmic texture (as well as a continuous viewing experience). Sony's Blu-ray does a fine job of honoring that intent with an image that's not obtrusively digital in character. Like the theatrical presentation, this one evinces a somewhat soft (especially in interior lighting) and yet fundamentally detailed image, with palpable (and cumulatively horrifying) historical textures and pallid skin tones. The picture is mostly dark in character, and black levels support that tactic well, with shadow detail revealing only as much as the filmmaking team intended. Color is true, and the image is clean and solid.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is equally important to the disc's PQ in creative the film's deeply disturbing immersion into Auschwitz. The sound effects do much of the work of the storytelling, and the carefully considered placement of those effects in the surround channels is highly effective. The key dialogue resides front and center, with ample clarity (though most Americans will rely upon the optional but default subtitles). Dynamic range excels, from the screeching of a train to the rumble of a truck engine.

Sony provides a handful of on-point bonus features for Son of Saul, leaving the Blu-ray only lacking a "making of" documentary (and thereby preserving both the film's realism and mystique). In lieu of a documentary, we get a thorough audio commentary with writer/director László Nemes, actor Géza Röhrig, and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. The trio discusses conceptualizing and achieving the film's look in photography and camera operation; the process behind the film's performances, especially Röhrig's leading one; and the meanings of story points, the Holocaust, this particular Holocaust story, and Holocaust stories in general.

The disc's only featurette proves a strong one: "Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance" (1:03:27, HD). This discussion with Nemes, Röhrig, and Erdély—moderated by Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival Director Hilary Helstein—covers much of the same ground as the commentary, but gets into some unique areas and has the benefit of the speakers' faces being on display.

The disc also includes a sole "Deleted Scene" (2:05, HD), labeled "Return From the River," and the "Son of Saul Theatrical Trailer" (1:43, HD).

Son of Saul certainly doesn't have "everyday" repeat value, but as an Oscar-winning Best Documentary Feature and a key Holocaust film, it's a keeper for cineastes, with added value in its thoughtful package of bonus features.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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