In the mid 1940s unimaginable horror was loosed on the world. This film, based on the traumatic evil that men do, listed historically as “Hitler’s Final Solution”, shatters the senses, becoming an important masterpiece.
In the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Saul Auslander is a Hugarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large scale extermination. Their duties included escorting new transports of prisoners to the gas chamber buildings, to get them to undress, reassure them and lead them into the gas chambers. After, they would remove and burn the corpses all the while cleaning the space.
While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the body of a boy who he takes for his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task, save the child’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) and offer the boy a proper burial.
The Nazis macabre plan had to be accomplished very quickly because other prisoner convoys were already on the way resulting in a logistics backlog. Auschwitz-Birkenau functioned like a factory producing and eliminating corpses on an industrial scale. In the summer of 1944, it was running at full capacity: historians estimate that several thousand Jews were assassinated there every day. During the course of their mission, the Sonderkommandos were given a relatively preferential treatment. They were allowed to take food found in the transports and, within the confines of their perimeter, have a relative freedom of movement. But the task they were assigned was grueling and they were regularly eliminated every three or four months by the SS in order to ensure that there were no witnesses to the extermination.
“Son of Saul” is an ambitious work carried out in an economical manner, plunging the viewer directly into the heart of a concentration camp. Director Laszlo Nemes has taken a different path from the usual approach of historical dramas, their gigantic and multi-point of view narration. He says; “The film doesn’t tell the story of the Holocaust, but the simple story of one man caught in a dreadful situation, in a limited framework of space and time. Two days in the life of a man forced to lose his humanity and who finds moral survival in the salvaging of a dead body.
We follow the title character throughout the film, and see only his immediate surroundings which creates an organic filmic space of reduced proportions closer to human perception.”
The issue of moral principal becomes apparent….what must we do to survive? Faced with inhuman horror, suffering through life with a termination date all but stamped on your forehead while unimaginable suffering goes on around you — at what point does literal truth cease to be important? What lies must we tell ourselves to maintain even a semblance of sanity?
Nemes, who also co-wrote the film, based it in part on secret writings members of the Sonderkommando hid. What makes “Son of Saul” so unique, though, in addition to showing us the grisly day-to-day business of death camps, is in the way the film was photographed. The opening shot shows Saul in close-up, engaged in his grim task, stoically leading men and women into a room, where they are told to strip down and clean up in the showers, then get something to eat. Historically, we know what’s to follow, and eventually, so do they. The focus remains steadfastly on Saul, with the camera either framing his face or following along just behind him. As men and women are herded into the showers, we see them along the margins of the frame. The camera then pans to Saul’s impassive expression, which is almost a relief. The screams, the pounding on the walls and doors, play as horrific background noise. We are in Saul’s head, experiencing what he does. It’s as if he has developed an internal mute button to block out the reality of what is happening — what he is facilitating.
The person who plays Saul isn’t an actor. Geza Rohrig is a Hungarian writer and poet who lives in New York. Director Nemes met him several years ago and cast him in the role because “he is someone who is in constant motion, his facial features and his body are always changing. It is impossible to tell his age, for he is at once old and young, but also handsome and ugly; ordinary and remarkable, deep and impassive, quick-witted and slow. He moves, is given to fidgeting, but also knows how to keep silent and still.” It’s a detailed perception by the director who has proven diligent in creating a masterwork on one human’s resistance to mass horror. All the more reason to appreciate Rohrig’s electrifying, focused performance.
“Son of Saul,” Laszlo Nemes first feature film, and Hungary’s official entry, won the 2015 Best Foreign Language Oscar, as well as the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix. It was also the official selection of the 2015 Toronto International and New York Film Festivals.
Currently in limited commercial release, its entertainment value is measured as an artistic expression of a powerful cinematic document focusing on the eternal struggle between brutal reality and one individual’s resistance to it.
Written by: Alex Reynolds