Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Director: Lázló Nemes
Writers: Lázló Nemes, Clara Royers
There are few subject matters as painful and unspeakable as the Holocaust, a monstrous event that even today remains living memory for many. This makes it a difficult subject to approach in cinema or indeed in art. Such an experience goes so far beyond basic human comprehension that no work of art, fiction or otherwise, can ever fully capture it in its immense tragedy. Although I consider Schindler’s List to be a magnificent picture, there are some who have validly criticised Spielberg for sentimentalising the Holocaust. An inherent limitation of cinema, commercially at least, is that it must present a narrative that’s accessible to an audience. If any film has ever come close to truly capturing this horrific episode on an emotional level it is perhaps Shoah, a film that measures at an exhaustive nine hours that few viewers have the patience to endure. Such is the challenge faced by Son of Saul which has set out to depict a harrowing story set in the Holocaust in a way unlike any other film that I’ve ever seen.
It is late 1944 and Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz. He works as one of the Sonderkommando whose duty is to dispose of the victims that have succumbed to the gas chamber. As he performs this task he comes across the body of a boy whom the audience is made to understand is Saul’s son. He takes the body into his own custody in order to give the boy a proper Jewish burial and proceeds to scour the camp looking for a rabbi to perform the ritual. Meanwhile there is talk of a rebellion amongst the inmates, most notably from Abraham (Levente Molnár), also part of the Sonderkommando, and Oberkapo Biedermann (Urs Rechn). When Saul asks Abraham for his help in finding a Rabbi he offers his assistance in return. In the story that follows Saul undertakes inordinate risks to complete his impossible task, one that seems both foolish and futile to those around him.
The most immediately striking aspect of this film is the filming itself. Shot on 35mm with a 1:1.375 frame, allowing for a narrow portrait-like window, the camera is fixed squarely on Saul’s face for the vast majority of the movie. We follow Saul through extended takes as he goes about his tasks and bear witness to the horrors of the camp from his perspective. As the camera continues to stare steadily at Saul’s impassive expression we become aware of his surroundings through the sounds that penetrate their way past his field of vision. The screams, the gunshots, the crackle of the fires and the mechanisms at work; however numb or desensitised Saul has become to the atrocities around him, these sounds are ever present and are inescapable. The innovative use of sound in this film taps into an emotional core that the use of visuals might otherwise have diluted. By focusing the camera on Saul himself in painfully drawn-out sequences we get a staggering insight into the daily terrors of the Nazi extermination camps from the individual’s perspective. For each victim of the extermination camps the Holocaust was a living nightmare that they couldn’t escape and through this format Son of Saul provides us with a petrifying glimpse into that consciousness.
But in the middle of all the anguish, torment and chaos, there is a personal story being told. In a place where people are treated like cattle being herded into rooms to be slaughtered, Saul has made it his mission to ensure that his son is given a proper funeral. What isn’t made clear to the audience however is his reason. Is Saul simply a father trying to save his son’s soul in the only way he can or does it go beyond that? In a world where Saul and his people have been robbed of their identity and culture perhaps holding a Jewish burial for his son is Saul’s way of holding on to his humanity. Living a life of death and suffering where such notions as hope, freedom and compassion have long since been forsaken, perhaps holding this funeral is the only thing that makes sense to Saul in the middle of all the pain and madness. Or perhaps he doesn’t even know why he has to do this; it’s just something that he has to do. Whatever his reasons Saul sets to complete this futile task at whatever the cost with a blind determination that struck me as Sisyphean.
While there have been films that have been able to convey the horror of the Holocaust on a visual level, few have succeeded in portraying it to the viewer on a truly personal level. This is what makes Son of Saul a monumental achievement in cinema. It manages to capture a mentality (or an impression of a mentality) that is communicable to the viewer, one that allows them to comprehend on an emotional level the perpetual state of fear, dread, agony, grief and helplessness shared by the prisoners in the camps. Although they can recall painful memories and reveal deep wounds in our history, it is important for films like Son of Saul to be made. It is only through art that we can remember these stories and learn to understand and identify with them intellectually, spiritually and emotionally so that they might never be forgotten or relived. Son of Saul is a remarkable and devastating film that portrays its subject with deep profundity and affecting humanity.