This review of Son of Saul was first published during my time at the University of Bristol. The original article can be viewed on the Epigram website here:
Mere months after the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, almost half a million of the country’s Jewish population had been deported directly to Auschwitz. The tide had begun to turn against Germany’s war effort, and with the steady Allied advance came a significant effort from the Nazi leadership to eliminate as many Jews that remained in their captivity as possible. Consequently, up to 90% of the prisoners that arrived at the camp from Hungary were immediately exterminated.
This atmosphere of panic and of the ever-present threat of death serves as the backdrop for filmmaker László Nemes’ debut Son of Saul. Starring fellow Hungarian Géza Röhrig as the eponymous protagonist, Saul Ausländer, it follows the experiences of a small group of Sonderkommando, Jewish slave labourers forced to run the day-to-day operations of the camp. As the ‘bearers of secrets’, the Sonderkommando were tasked with directing their fellow Jews into the perilous trap of the gas chambers. They were kept in isolation from the rest of the inmates, and were regularly murdered themselves by the camp leadership for fear of the extent of their knowledge of Nazi crimes.
The film’s opening shot slowly pans to reveal an out of focus changing room, gradually filling up with equally anonymous camp prisoners. As an unknown voice can be heard telling them the infamous lie that they will receive a ‘decontamination’ shower that was to be followed by ‘hot soup’, our protagonist enters the frame. Following Saul from behind his right shoulder, the camera pans around the changing room to see a naked flock of people slowly shuffling past the doors of the chamber. All the while, both their faces and bodies remain out of focus – our attention remains solely on the back and side of our protagonist’s head. As the doors close, and the screaming starts, we are forced to fix our attention to the dead-eyed vacancy of expression on Saul’s face. Clearly, this is a man whose soul has long departed. This is a man who is already dead.
It is through this intense focus on the decaying mind of its protagonist that Son of Saul finds its originality. Through development of an inescapable feeling of claustrophobia, László Nemes has forced us to dwell on the deeply personal and introspective side of the Holocaust. This is no Schindler’s List – this story lacks any form of grand effort to save thousands of victims, or indeed an epic narrative for which Spielberg’s masterpiece is rightfully praised. Despite the historical context of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando revolt, resulting as it did in the partial destruction of the camp and the escape of a number of prisoners, Son of Saul instead follows its protagonist’s attempt to find a Rabbi to bury an unidentified child that he has saved from the crematorium. As chaos erupts all around him, Saul continuously endangers his own life so that he may save the soul of another.
There is some ambiguity as to the real identity of the boy whose body our protagonist obsessively attempts to protect. When asked by a fellow Sonderkommando, Saul informs him that it is indeed his son, only to be met with the sceptical assertion that ‘you have no son’. It appears, however, that the relevancy of the truth behind their relationship is considerably limited. Through a suspension of belief, it becomes clear that the boy represents to us the immortal power of Saul’s own spirituality. The dead are more important to him than the living – the promise of afterlife for this child exceeds any physical effort by Saul himself to aid the Sonderkommando in their attempts to escape.
‘You failed the living for the dead’. Such is the charge made against our protagonist during the final minutes of Nemes’ picture. ‘We’re already dead’, Saul grimly replies. The 107 minutes that one endures when watching Son of Saul are unquestionably some of the most harrowing yet recorded on film. The brutal, impersonal nature of killing and death meets gruesome imagery of bodies piling into blaring ovens. And yet, what one takes away from this film is not an increased level of exposure to the horrors of the inner-workings of the death camp, but rather, a developed and troubled glimpse into the fractured soul of one of those forced to manage it. Life and death… the physical and the spiritual… all collide as we intimately follow the trivial and yet essential task of our protagonist. A picture unlike any other, Son of Saul stands as a monument in the genre of Holocaust cinema. Its message is both profound and chilling; truly, it has to be experienced to be understood.