A film from Hungary called SON OF SAUL has just won the Academy Award for Best Foreign film. But you should know a few things about this film before you decide to see it.
SON OF SAUL plunges us into the nightmare world of a Nazi death camp and one of its victims, Saul, a member of a special group of Jewish men assigned to herd other Jews into gas chambers, then to burn their corpses and shovel their ashes into a river. This horrible plight has caused Saul to lose touch with reality which makes it very hard for the audience to identify with him. And that reduces the film's impact. I admire SON OF SAUL even if it doesn't work as well as it should.
The very first shot lets us know this is not a typical movie. The screen is a blur until Saul walks up to the camera and snaps into focus.
And for the entire movie we are either looking at hand held close ups of Saul or slightly wider shots of what he sees. Much of every shot is at least slightly out of focus although a sound track full of screams, moans, and gunfire makes clear what's happening in the blurry parts of the picture.
Saul can't really look at the people he's herding into a gas chamber. He knows all too well that he and his crew will meet the same fate in a few months.
But some spark of humanity rises in him when he sees the corpse of a young boy he believes is his son. We learn later that Saul doesn't even have a son, which shows how far gone his mind is. But Saul becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi and giving this boy a proper burial.
He risks his life over and over, pushed and prodded constantly by his captors and even by his friends because his obsession with the boy prevents him from doing his part in their plot to overthrow the guards and escape.
SON OF SAUL immerses the audience into the fear, frenzy and chaos of a concentration camp. The hand held, out-of-focus shooting style will alienate many viewers, but the cinematography does make us feel Saul's vulnerability, the sheer terror of knowing that you could be beaten or killed at any moment.
If you're willing to put yourself through that kind of torture, then SON OF SAUL is something you should see.