Harrowing in every way

"Son of Saul" gets inside the mind of a death camp inmate.

‘Son of Saul’ (photo credit: PR)
‘Son of Saul’
(photo credit: PR)
In the first five minutes of László Nemes’s film Son of Saul, the hero (played by Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz – a group of workers tasked with getting Jews into the gas chambers and disposing of their bodies – sees a boy he thinks is his son in a group of new arrivals. He can’t get to him before the boy is put into the gas chamber; but afterwards, he sees that somehow the child has survived. He watches a doctor kill the boy and order an autopsy. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to find a rabbi to give the boy a Jewish burial.
This is the Holocaust as you have never seen it depicted in a feature film. It’s in color, not the tasteful black and white of Schindler’s List.
The actors don’t speak English as they did in Spielberg’s film or in another movie depiction of the Sonderkommando, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone. In Son of Saul, they speak German, Yiddish, Hungarian and other languages.
It’s a horrifying film but brilliantly done and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Later this month, it is virtually certain to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Although it does not have Israeli producers, the director developed the screenplay at the Jerusalem International Film Lab at the Sam Spiegel Film School.
This movie shows the events from Saul’s point of view, blurring the edges of each frame and concentrating only on Saul performing various tasks, such as scrubbing stains off the walls and floor of the gas chambers. It also focuses on his face as he reacts to what is happening, in long takes.
Justin Chang wrote in Variety, “The experience of watching Son of Saul is not unlike that of navigating the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno with the Dardenne brothers.” I can’t think of a more apt description.
The film takes place on October 7, 1944, the day of a doomed rebellion, which Saul’s fellow prisoners are expecting him to take part in but which he uses only as an opportunity to try to bury the boy. The mass liquidation of Hungarian Jewry was under way. The Sonderkommando worked in shifts; and although we may think of concentration camps as orderly, the sheer volume of the slaughter created chaos. Saul is constantly pressed to perform some task, and he steals a few minutes each time to try to advance his goal.
The multi-layered soundtrack adds to the sense of confusion. It also conveys, as less realistic movies never could, the constant fear and stress the inmates coped with.
The Sonderkommando lived longer than other inmates, but they were almost always killed, since they knew the most about the inner workings of the death machine. Saul seems to be beyond caring about his own life, but he cares about this boy and is terrified that he will be cut down before he can achieve his goal.
Géza Röhrig, a poet who has never acted before, gives an extraordinary performance in the lead role.
The film’s success as a movie is that it puts us into Saul’s mind and shows us the world through his eyes. These inmates did not know, as we do, that the war would end in another seven months and that Jews would not be wiped off the face of the Earth. I don’t understand what that must have been like, but this movie brought me closer to understanding it.
The movie leaves open the question of whether the boy is really Saul’s son – several characters say he never had a son – and in the end, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is the movie’s emotional impact, which is considerable. But what does the movie offer people, such as many of us in Israel, who know a great deal about the Holocaust? I can’t answer that. People will have to decide for themselves if this is a film they want to see.