Forgive me, but it has taken a few days to post my review of Son of Saul. You can hear my radio review of it on BBC Front Row here and of course I reviewed it from Cannes last year here but I’ve been so stunned by it again and waited for other reviews and reactions so I could make a definitive statement now that everyone can see it:
Son of Saul is the best, most important film of this century.
I was going to write this review a couple of days ago and them Ken Livingstone went and illustrated just why everyone must see this film. I want to shove Son of Saul down that ignoramus’ vile gullet. I want it to choke him into silence.
For silence is perhaps the only response, as Wittgenstein intimated, for those who don’t know what to say. Cinema freezes in front of the Holocaust far too often. It usually seeks narrative and sentiment in order to tell its audience what to feel and for the film maker to make sense of it. Son of Saul does none of that, because it is a monumental work of art, probably THE monument that cinema has been waiting to make.
There isn’t a grain of sentimentalism in it. It is not a film about those who survived, but a depiction of death. Focusing on the hooded, flitting movements of Saul, he is a zombie, a walking dead, part of the Sonderkommando who have earned a stay of execution by performing the hellish tasks of shepherding their fellow Jews into the showers, then cleaning up their ashes, shift workers at the infernal factory of death. They too will die, and they know it.
Saul’s redeeming feature – i.e. the reason he’s the subject of this film, he rather than anyone else going about their business (two jobs – survive or exterminate) in the camp as it ratchets up its conveyor belt of murder to a 24-hour operation – is that he thinks he’s spotted the corpse of his son. For some reason, he seeks out a rabbi to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, over his son. Suddenly, this act of human dignity becomes his obsession, his fleck of life. He could say Kaddish himself, no? But he feels he needs a rabbi. Even here, particularly here, Saul is seeking meaning, a drowning man still dragging himself up for those last gulps of air.
And as director Laszlo Nemes keeps us stuck to Saul in close-up, we seek meaning with him. While all manner of indignity and terror goes on around him, in the corner of the frame, out of shot but in earshot, Saul keeps going.
Nemes, in what must be one of the greatest movie debuts in film history, never waivers, never flinches. And that’s why the film is literally a towering work.
He doesn’t look to make us cry or weep or recoil. He makes it impossible not to watch. He is brave and smart enough to make sure we don’t “feel” – we witness and process until we are frozen into numbness. We experience grief as we watch. We feel the “hour of lead” that Emily Dickinson described. We dismiss the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt defined, because this is not banal. This is what happens when we sweep banality under the carpet of everyday discourse and media frivolity, when we allow people like Ken Livingstone to talk shit and get away with it, when we let people in power excuse it.
Son of Saul isn’t even about anti-semitism. It is about anti-humanity and the power of a regime to crush it. Other film makers like to assert that humanity will live on through horror and Holocaust, but Son of Saul is not so sure. Son of Saul admits the devil will win if we search for the angels too long. God is not here in Auschwitz, not in the souls of the dead nor in those of the living, nor is he in the compassionate gaze of the director, the story teller or the audience.
It is the right film for the right time and it must be seen by absolutely everyone. I said last year that Cannes missed a trick in not giving it the Palme d’Or – I like Dheepan, but it shrivels into insignificance beside Son of Saul. I’m convinced now that Cannes made a timid error of judgement. Son of Saul should have been one of the great Palme d’Or winners of all time.
Son of Saul is not a Jewish film. It is the ultimate horror movie, the film that dares go over the abyss. This is where we are headed, it says…again.
All weekend people have been saying to me they don’t fancy it, that it’s not a “night out”, that they can’t bring themselves to it. Of course it isn’t fun, but actually it doesn’t hurt, because it does everything to stop you feeling. It forces you to watch, yes, and to make up your own feelings and your own story. Just see it, while you still have the freedom to do so, and see it together, in a cinema, close to other humans. Please.