I managed to catch Son of Saul the day before it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees, but I doubt any of the other four were this intense, not to mention bleak.
Of course, it’s set in a concentration camp, where there aren’t a lot of laughs. It’s focused, and I mean that literally, on Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew who is a Sonderkommando–a prisoner on a work crew that is responsible for herding other prisoners into the gas chambers and then disposing of the remains. They are worked for a few months and then executed themselves.
Directed by László Nemes, Son of Saul rarely leaves Röhrig’s face. Perhaps ninety percent of it is a tight close-up, and it soon becomes apparent whyy Nemes chose this. While looking at Röhrig’s face, the horrors happen in the periphery, and what we can imagine is worse than what we can see.
The opening of the film has the Sonderkommando helping to strip new prisoners, off of a “transport.” These prisoners are told they are being led into the showers, but of course we know better. After the door closes, we hear some screams, and then silence. But one boy survives. Röhrig becomes obsessed with him, even after a Nazi doctor suffocates him. Röhrig takes it into his head that the boy is his son, and he wants to give him a proper Jewish burial, which is then the arc of the film.
Why does he do this? Perhaps it’s a reason to live. In any event, Röhrig stops a Jewish doctor from giving the boy an autopsy, hiding the body until he can find a rabbi. A few rabbis think him mad, but he keeps looking, and we see the mechanism of a concentration camp. We tour the crematorium, watch men loot the clothing and valuables of the dead, and haul off the naked bodies, referred to as “pieces,” and then ashes shoveled into a lake. In one almost hallucinatory scene prisoners are lined up at a ditch, shoved in, and shot. Röhrig almost dies, as he has taken off the jacket, marked with a red X, that indentifies him as a Sonderkommando.
We also see the curious working of the Sonderkommando, which has levels of authority. Some of the leaders are not Jewish, and are just as anti-Semitic as their captors. A few warn Röhrig to stop, as he is endangering all their lives, but he will not listen to reason.
There have been so many films about the Holocaust that it’s hard to believe there could something new said, but Nemes has done it. Son of Saul hardly lets you breathe, and the close-ups give one an acute sense of claustrophobia. This film is frightening and powerful.