Son of Saul: Father searches for essential closure

Like any father, Saul wants to protect his son. His eyes reveal the love he feels, the responsibility he welcomes, the challenges he willingly pursues. This man will do anything to take care of the child even if, as a result, he compromises his own safety. And he never waivers in making his son the priority of each day.

What makes Saul’s commitment as a father so touching – in the film Son of Saul – is that he is imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. And, sadly, his son his dead. But that doesn’t end the father’s sense of obligation. Instead, Saul intensely focuses on every step he can take to ensure that his son is properly buried. Never mind his grief, forget the obstacles, who cares about the danger? What matters to Saul is that he takes care of his son. Because that’s what fathers so.

’ film meticulously follows a day and a half in Saul’s life as the father tries to properly bury a body he believes to be his son. Rather than focus on the father’s grief, Nemes details the steps that Saul takes to try to properly care for the child’s body, from the help he secures from other prisoners to the bonds he builds with a camp physician to the rabbi he asks to perform the proper ritual. Never does Saul stop to express sorrow or reveal pain. Instead he intently focuses on what his conscience demands. He knows, no matter what he may face, he must bring proper closure to a young life so sadly ended.

While many films focus on the tragedies of World War II, Son of Saul stands apart in its look, feel and characters. When we remember films set in concentration camps, our memories often take us to dark images and black and white settings. But Nemes’ film radiates with color. We see green grass and healthy trees and other signs of life. While the setting is appropriately dim, we see rays of light in people and the sky. As if to suggest there are layers of life beyond the immediate, Nemes gives the movie such a warm glow that we, for a moment, forget we’re in the middle of a tragedy of senseless torture and death.

If this unique look gives Son of Saul its feel, the characters and performances deliver the spirit. Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig creates a haunting Saul with his deep eyes and commanding presence. With minimal words he tells us everything we need to know about this man’s sense of purpose. And, in lighter moments, he makes Saul’s humility as essential to the character as his devotion. Never does Röhrig let Saul feel sorry for himself or seek pity from others. The man knows why he is where he is and what he must do with his present circumstance. This matter-of-fact quality that Röhrig brings to the portrayal makes the man all the more real and his journey all that more meaningful.

Son of Saul joins an impressive collection of films that recreate the horrors of the Holocaust. No matter how many times we may have seen this period projected on screen, this film offers something new. Nemes translates the tragedy of a generation into a personal path that a father pursues. By making the film so much about this man, Nemes teaches us lessons about what life and family should mean.

5 Stars

Son of Saul

Content: High. This Oscar-nominated study of a man’s devotion to his son – while imprisoned at a concentration camp – deeply touches with its view of tragedy and redemption.

Entertainment: High. Even with subtitles, the accessible story and characters create a universal message of courage and devotion.

Message: High. No matter how many films have been made about this tragic chapter in history, Son of Saul makes the sadness immediate.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk about this period of time with older teenagers can be meaningful.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about what we cannot forget about this tragic chapter.

(Son of Saul is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity. The film runs 107 minutes minutes.)

How Movies Recreate the Holocaust

As the Oscar-nominated Son of Saul reminds us, the Holocaust is a tragic chapter in world history that illustrates how cruel people can be. Despite its horrors, though, the period also reminds us of the good that people can create when they reach beyond hate. This potential comes to life in the best films about the period. Here’s a look at some of the most effective recreations.

 The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

While we never see the tragedy in this adaptation of the famed collection of observations and thoughts of a young girl, we know more than the characters in the story – from our understanding of history – of what happens outside a hiding place for a Jewish family. While director George Stevens may take too much time to tell the story, the power of the narrative sustains our interest and the range of characters touches our hearts. Shelley Winters (who won an Oscar) and Ed Wynn are especially effective as people who know too much about how people can treat others.

 Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)

After World War II ended, and those accused of crimes against humanity were tried in post-war Germany, the horrors of the Holocaust returned as ordinary people testified against those who destroyed so much. Stanley Kramer’s film extends the running time of an earlier television version of the story by introducing more characters and developing additional tension. But the heart of the story stands as an all-star cast of Hollywood veterans recreates a moment in time when the world tried to forget what it could never forgive. Maximillian Schell and Judy Garland deliver sterling performances as people trying to reassemble their lives while Spencer Tracy offers one of his grand portrayals as a wise man too able to see the weaknesses of others.

 Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Meryl Streep won a well-deserved Oscar for her striking portrayal of a mother forced to make a horrific selection in this strong adaptation of the William Styron novel. Director Alan J. Pakula – working from his own screenplay – captures the essence of the novel without feeling obligated to replicate each detail. As the film slowly reveals the mystery surrounding a superficial woman in Brooklyn in 1947, Pakula brings to life the lasting tragedy that world events initiate when people are so careless about other people’s lives. Streep breaks our hearts in a performance of range and depth. In each glance she bears the weight of a generation destroyed by the selfishness of nations with visions of grandeur. Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol offer strong support.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Some acts of heroism even shock the heroes. Oscar Schindler, a self-absorbed German businessman, would never have considered himself a likely hero. But world events can change anyone and Schindler, though claiming to be a man without political conviction, surprisingly found himself in a position to help others. Schindler’s List takes us into Oscar Schindler’s extravagant life, dining at lovely restaurants, drinking fine champagne, enjoying the company of beautiful people. When he learns about the horrific atrocities being committed by the Germans against the Jews, he realizes he can’t stand idly by, and he uses his position as a businessman to protect and ultimately save hundreds of Jews who, otherwise, would face certain death. In Steven Spielberg’s classic Oscar winner, Schindler inspires us to reach for the best in ourselves to, hopefully, counter the worst in others.

The Pianist (2002)

One man’s personal mission to save himself from tragedy forms the narrative of this touching film from director Roman Polanski. Adrien Brody won a well-deserved (and unexpected) Oscar as Best Actor for playing Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who finds himself isolated in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw after his family is sent to an extermination camp. Polanski focuses on Szpilman’s efforts to save himself from certain death as he uses every possible thought and action to avoid the inevitable. His story inspires us to believe that, no matter how severe a situation, people can persevere if what they want overcomes what stands in their way. Polanski, a movie icon who has experienced his own personal tragedies, uses the narrative as a type of personal redemption, reminding us that, no matter how controversial his life may be, what stands is his ability to create truth on screen.

Thanks to the movies, we remember a moment in time too many may be tempted to forget. How meaningful to have these movies.