Claude Lanzmann, director of the acclaimed Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), was pleased with Son of Saul after seeing it. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that it did capture what it was like to be a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz and other camps. Director László Nemes was inspired by actual testimony from Sonderkommando members, a book called ”The Scrolls of Auschwitz”, and spent years on research, consulting historians. Stepping into this world together with the protagonist is a horrifyingly realistic experience.
Auschwitz, 1944. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners forced to help in the disposal of gassed Jews. He is a hard worker, doing what he can to prolong his life, fully aware of the fact that he has no choice but to help the Germans or else he will join the victims in the gas chambers. One day as he’s clearing away bodies, he discovers a boy who is still breathing; the gas didn’t quite kill him. The child is carried to a German physician who suffocates him and then demands an autopsy.
Something happens inside of Saul and he quickly volunteers to carry the body to the man who will do the autopsy. He turns out to be a fellow prisoner and Hungarian, and Saul talks him out of it. Instead, he wants this one victim to have a proper Jewish burial and needs to find a rabbi. At the same time, other prisoners are preparing an uprising…
The camera is intimately close
The first time we meet Saul, he’s helping the guards bring unsuspecting fresh arrivals into quarters where they believe they will be able to have a shower. Nothing in his demeanor reveals that he knows they will all be murdered within minutes. As soon as the doors close behind the naked prisoners, the Sonderkommando immediately remove all their clothes and belongings; the prisoners are not even dead yet, but they will never again need what they left behind. After a while, the gruesome work of dragging corpses and scrubbing the floor begins.
The camera always stays intimately close to Saul; shot in a very narrow, claustrophobic perspective, the film never fully exposes us to the horrors that are common sights in Saul’s life, but we glimpse them and it is no less disturbing. This is truly hell, and since the camera never leaves Saul we’re just as stuck in Auschwitz as he is, tagging along as he frantically keeps looking for a rabbi willing to do what he’s asking, and getting drawn into the plot leading up to the insurgency. There’s immense drive and tension throughout the film, with a somber yet forceful performance by Röhrig at the center of it; the poet doesn’t have much acting experience but is nevertheless terrific, providing a reasonable interpretation of what it must have been like working in the Sonderkommando, knowing more than most of the other prisoners but also likely understanding that death might come to him at any time.
His character is given a moral mission, something for him and us in the audience to cling to; Saul doesn’t know the dead boy, but he becomes a symbol for him. Here’s a child who miraculously survives the gassing, but is still senselessly killed; in this godless inferno, this boy deserves at least a semblance of dignity.
Very powerful, the director’s ambition was to create a film that isn’t beautiful but also doesn’t look like a horror movie, because this was after all real life. The Soviet classic Come and See (1985), also depicting WWII atrocities, was a clear inspiration. The ending is unforgettable, inevitable but quiet, moving and almost poetic.
Son of Saul 2015-Hungary. 107 min. Color. Produced by Gábor Rajna, Gábor Sipos. Directed by László Nemes. Screenplay: László Nemes, Clara Royer. Cinematography: Mátyás Erdély. Cast: Géza Röhrig (Saul Ausländer), Levente Molnár (Abraham), Urs Rechn (Biedermann), Sándor Zsótér, Todd Charmont, Uwe Lauer.
Trivia: Original title: Saul fia.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. BAFTA: Best Film not in the English Language. Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury.
Last word: “I forbid myself from representing the face of horror or going into the gas chambers because I restricted myself to Saul’s perspective. He worked there for four months and so he lost his ability to see the horror, no longer noticing the atrocities because he got used to it. Given this, I blurred out the horrifying images in the background. The camera stops at the gas chamber door, only entering after the act of extermination to show Saul removing the bodies and washing away their traces. There was no way to show the images of death since I wanted to stay within Saul’s perspective.” (Nemes, Mubi)