Son of Saul (2014), a Hungarian film directed by László Nemes and written by László Nemes and Clara Royer is an award winning tale of a man’s struggle to preserve dignity amidst the darkest days of the Jewish liquidation in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This film takes place at exactly the same time as the film The Grey Zone and Dr. Nyiszli’s book, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account. I strongly suspect one of the doctors in this film was portraying Dr. Nyiszli. This tale also took place during Filip Müller’s book, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, and Schlomo Venezia’s harrowing memoir, Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz. (I recommend these books.) Depicted in the film is the Sonderkommando revolt, the snapping of the famous photos exposing the outdoor body burn pits, and the terrible days of the largest shipments of Jews to date, the Hungarians. All of this data would lead one to believe this is a Holocaust film or a historical narrative. It is neither. All of this very carefully documented history serves only as a background for a simple, personal story about one man: Saul. That is why it is not listed on my blog as a “war movie” or “WWII film.”
Saul, such a common Hebrew name and thus perhaps a representative of the Jews as a whole, finds himself as a member of the Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando is that group of Jews who were forced to work the undressing rooms, crematoria and burn pits. These men were given perks and lived in better conditions than the other slaves, and usually gained a month or two of living before they too were executed and a new group brought in. In the Sonderkommando, another day lived meant hope that liberation might come, and hope that the grisly tales of the death camp might get out. It was, of course, a moral and ethical burden, and it is this dehumanizing moral challenge that drives Saul to find some coping mechanism.
He encounters a young boy gassed in the horrible chamber where he works. This boy’s apparent innocence triggers a deep compassion in Saul. He adopts this boy as his own son, and thus begins a desperate attempt to preserve some humanity in his life. Providing a proper burial for the boy is Saul’s way to hold on to the last vestiges of dignity in a place of hellish inhumanity. Saul hides the boy’s body, and is then off on a quest to locate a Rabbi to say the kaddish, a burial prayer, as he gives him a proper Jewish internment.
There is great tension is present in all scenes, one wrong step takes the Sonderkommando to death. But through a series of intentional and risky moves between various events and chaos, along with bribes and dumb luck, Saul manages to avoid death. The film portrays the harassing stress and strain of the camp quite well. One scene near the end of the film finds Saul desperately seeking a rabbi to perform last rites for the boy in the midst of a transport that was freshly arrived and going through “selection,” that horrible process of pulling out those who would work from the majority who would die. The people became spooked and a great panic arose. People are executed on the spot near the open fire pits, and in the confusion, Saul is mistaken for a transport member and lined up to be shot. He barely makes it to safety, it is all very tense. This determinate goal of his, executed in the midst of the greatest stress and confusion, makes for very powerful story telling.
The film has stirring sound design, its the sound that really made the crematoria a terror. I rarely notice how marvelous the sound design is, but here I was stirred. The sound is really, really haunting and well-done. Listen with good headphones. Many viewers may miss the subtleties if they have not read up on the experiences in the Sonderkommando. Another reviewer on IMDB noted that it is helpful to read these works to pick up the great details of what is happening in the film. These film makers have done extensive and excellent research. This is one of the best-researched films I’ve ever seen.
The film employs an over-the-shoulder perspective for much of the story, and the shakiness of a hand-held camera add to the confusion. In fact, I almost became sick of the over-use of this perspective. But it did succeed to place the me as an observer, maybe even a participant, in the hustle of the work details. It was disorienting at times, but it was supposed to be.
The extreme shallow depth of field, blurring almost everything outside of the immediate characters, is a bit annoying at first. I was terribly put off by this in combination with the shaky camera. But then I saw the brilliance of it. Such a shallow depth of field becomes a beautiful way to show extreme gruesomeness with a level of restraint, and that is appreciated. The mind can easily fill in the gory details of the plain images depicted in the background and just outside of focus. Well-done. It also directs our focus to the personal story as the primary story, rather than the tale of the crematoria, successfully told in other films and books.
One scene depicts the taking of pictures, very famous pictures, showing the burn pits constructed outside of the crematoria to handle the overflow of corpses. Some of the most gruesome photos of the war were the very few images that made it out of the camp of these pits. The construction of these pits were particularly wicked in their design. In typical German fashion, they used the rendered fat of the people to fuel the fire, and channeled that fat through ditches to the end of the pit where such liquid could be scooped and tossed back onto the piles of bodies. German efficiency. We are not told these things in the film, but those familiar with the accounts of this horror will appreciate how the scene commemorates the brave taking of photos. The world needed to see from the ground what Allied reconnaissance aircraft photographed from above.
This is a very powerful film in some regards – it really shows the rigors and dehumanization of the death camps. It show’s that every man has a story, individuals count, and there are no little people who do not matter. This is a distinctly Hebraic-Christian concept that revolutionized the world of antiquity, and demonstrates the wickedness of Hitler’s heathenish ’final solution.’
In this film, the dead boy seems to represent the entire Jewish race, and the death ceremony is a token memorial for the whole struggle of the Jewish people against the tyranny of those who hate them.
I did not appreciate the slow movement of the story near the end. As the Sonderkommando rebellion began, Saul and many others managed to escape into the forest. Saul carried the body of the boy through the forest in a desperate attempt to hang on to the dignity of man, and then was forced to attempt a river crossing. As Saul lost the body of his beloved adopted son we feel the pain of despair. In sorrow, he and the other escapees find a barn in which to rest, and there the story finds its fulfillment in a symbolic scene of great beauty. This could have been very cheesy, but Nemes pulls it off very well.
This is not a film of entertainment, it seems to be more of a story of the importance of dignity. Read some books first, then watch this film. It deserves the accolades it has achieved, but is not entertainment. I highly recommend it.