I left the movie theater queasy and shaken to the bone. These are, perhaps, appropriate responses to the winner of the 2015 Cannes Grand Prix and the 2016 Oscar for Foreign Language Film. Son of Saul follows Sonderkommando Saul on his journey through and around the crematoria of Auschwitz in 1944.
Selected by Nazi concentration camp officers, Sonderdommandos were male Jewish prisoners who received slightly better food and conditions in exchange for their distasteful job of ushering fellow Jews into the gas chambers, confiscating and turning over their clothing and valuables, and transporting the bodies to crematoria for disposal. These men were vilified for their role in the executions. But in reality, they were just men, trying to survive madness and delay their own trip to the pyre for as long as possible.
Hand-held cameras closely follow Saul, played by Hungarian-born poet and scholar of Jewish theology, and former orphan, Géza Röhrig, through dark corridors and claustrophobic cubicles, creating nauseatingly unpredictable and chaotic confusion. Director László Nemes plays with viewers’ minds by occasionally shifting focus from Saul’s ravaged and inscrutable face to the mostly merciful, soft-focus of the surrounding human debris.
I was confused about what was happening during a good portion of the film, but eventually I realized that Saul had glimpsed the body of his young son in a pile of corpses. From that moment on, Saul is driven by an obsession to rescue the boy’s body and to locate within the prison, a Rabbi to perform last rites. To the exclusion of all other needs, Saul’s obsession endangers his life and the life of fellow Sonderkommando, who are in the midst of a covert plot to instigate a camp rebellion and prisoner escape.
Some viewers sing the praises of Saul’s bravery and determination and describe the film as “one man’s mission of mercy.” To me the film portrayed one man’s mission of lunacy. Saul’s behavior exemplified the utter despair and shrunken reality that results from the horrors of enforced depravity. In focusing on religious ritual to “save” the already dead, Saul retreats inside his own silent head and forsakes his fellow prisoners. It is not even really clear if the boy is, indeed, Saul’s child. The body could simply be emblematic of all the sons of all the Sauls.
The stunning and graphic cinematography in Son of Saul manages to handle scenes of human desecration with rare eloquence. Son of Saul is an important movie in the ever expanding body of work that addresses the Shoah. But it is not for the faint of heart.