|'A film which could arrest your attention through its distinctive visuals and camerawork alone should it need to, not that it ever does'.|
From its opening shot onwards, in which a figure moves towards us turning from a blurred image to the sharp and defined face of main character Saul (Géza Röhrig), Son Of Saul is a film which could arrest your attention through its distinctive visuals and camerawork alone should it need to, not that it ever does. Director László Nemes' film showcases the most effective use of close-ups seen in a film this year - or indeed most others - with the technique used almost continuously and often in lengthy single takes to make Son Of Saul an intensely intimate and palpably tense affair throughout.
A chilling side-effect of this shooting technique by Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély is the peripheral view we are afforded of much of Saul's surroundings. With his main character being a member of the "Sonderkommando" - the Jewish prisoners selected for labour in Nazi concentration camps, essentially being forced to help in the extermination of their own race - at Auschwitz, Nemes shows us the horrors and atrocities of such a place through the ever-shifting backdrop we see beside and behind Saul, adding an extra dimension to his choice of near-constant close-ups. The director manifestly understands the power of suggestion, with the partial, almost voyeuristic glimpses of stomach-churning sights Nemes affords the audience far more effective than if he had simply shown them explicitly, setting the viewer's own imagination against them.
Onto this dynamic canvas, Nemes unfolds a story that is as thrilling as it is tragic. With Saul evidently recognising his own son amongst the corpses of the recently slaughtered during the opening act, he sets about a deeply personal mission to give the boy as proper a burial as is possible within the impossible situation he finds himself in. Whilst this clearly means putting himself in direct danger of discovery by the Nazi officers running Auschwitz, it also puts him at odds with other members of his Sonderkommando unit who have plans of their own that Saul's actions may jeopardise. There are times where elements of the plot become quite tough to follow, especially the cabalistic dialogue of Saul's fellow Sonderkommando members as they trade cryptic phrases with one another, an issue perpetuated by the fact that Nemes barely allows us to get to know any character other than Saul. However, Nemes more often than not makes up for this by ensuring Son Of Saul is gripping even at its least penetrable moments, regularly wringing heart-in-your-throat levels of tension from his set-up.
Saul himself becomes increasingly complex as the story progresses, beginning the film as seemingly an ordinary Jewish man who has happened across a near-impossible chance to do good when surrounded by evil on a daily basis. Nemes is careful in what he reveals about Saul, however, with key information provided to the audience at points throughout which make matters perhaps less straightforward than they initially appear. Röhrig in the lead role is undoubtedly the keystone of Son Of Saul, and his performance cannot be overpraised; the actor's distinctive and expressive face, authentically haggard from all his character has experienced, becomes both window into and portrait of all that Nemes wants to say about one of the most despicable periods of human history.
Son Of Saul plays LIFF29 again on Wednesday 11th November at 20.30 at Leeds Town Hall.
The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.