Even more than Oscar, Cannes values putting in your dues. The list of debut directors who even receive a coveted In Competition slot is short, and the list of those that go on to capture an awards is even shorter yet, and populated with names like Truffaut and Soderbergh. Even Francophone rising stars like Jacques Audiard and Xavier Dolan typically begin their Cannes careers out of Competition, regardless of whether their films are indisputably higher quality than some of the titles with a slot.
See: Takashi Miike, Cannes Shoo-In
Last year, though, Laszlo Nemes, with his first ever film, both landed In Competition and won the Grand Prix, essentially 2nd Place, before going on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. There’s not really room for a debut to be any more impressive than that.
His film, Son of Saul, is very literally focused on Saul (Geza Rohrig), an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, who discovers the body of a boy he believes to be his son. Determined to save him from the furnaces and give him a proper Jewish burial, he tries to evade both the Nazis and his fellow concentration camp prisoners, who are plotting an escape attempt.
Director Laszlo Nemes shows preternatural confidence in his debut, knowing precisely what he wants to accomplish, and how to do so. He creates an unimaginably monstrous world while only judiciously actually showing it through intimation, blurred backgrounds, and hasty glances, unremarkable to the characters and hence to the camera.
Anything becomes quotidian after enough days
Nemes’s primary tool in creating this atmosphere and setting is DP Matyas Erdely’s one of a kind cinematography, which uses a steadicam rig, extreme shallow focus, and the Academy ratio to close our glimpse into Saul’s world almost wholly to the size of his narrow viewpoint. As striking as it is, heralded by a first shot that is blurred and out of focus until Saul steps into frame in crisp relief, it’s no academic exercise- the camera and our perspective does move away from Saul at times, but always in service of the story. However, Nemes and Erdely don’t search out spectacle or beauty, because even winding through white birches on the way to deposit mound upon mound of soft ash into the sun-kissed river, there’s no beauty here.
Geza Rohrig is spectacular in the lead and in some ways only role- determined, but lifeless, appearing thoroughly dehumanized like in a scene in which a Nazi officer dancing a twisted Horah around him, but steel-spined in this one task, this final ode to a life that he believes is already finished. Nemes uses small gestures and details, like a momentary reunion with a woman who may have been his wife, to suggest how Saul considers himself a dead man walking. He’s closed off as much of his former life as he can to insulate himself from the horror of his situation, even showing a quick-passing rage when this woman tries to show him small affection. While we cannot, and hopefully will never really understand how it feels to live such a life, what Son of Saul achieves is a complex empathy that makes it unique among a long cannon of fictional depictions of the Holocaust, and puts it on a pedestal perhaps only otherwise occupied by Shoah.
Son of Saul is a staggering accomplishment in every way.
Son of Saul Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: “rabbi”
Take a Drink: “arbeit”
Do a Shot: whenever the camera follows someone other than Saul