(This film review of “Son of Saul” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on February 25, 2016.)
Directed by László Nemes
Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer
Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn and Sándor Zsótér
When the Hungarian film “Son of Saul” wins the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” tomorrow, it will be the 21st film representing the Holocaust – starting with 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” – to win an Oscar.
This year, unlike last year’s win by the Polish film “Ida”, the Oscar will be well-deserved. “Son of Saul” is one of the most powerful, engrossing and unforgettable films to be released in the last year, and will takes its place as one of the finest Holocaust dramas ever made. Set completely in one concentration camp – presumably Auschwitz, although that’s never specified – and over a two-day period in October 1944, “Son of Saul” neatly blends historical events with a quixotic quest by its protagonist. The resulting film avoids dramatising the slaughter, but still manages to portray the brutality, hopelessness, dehumanisation, and controlled chaos that characterised the Nazi genocide against the Jews: we hear the pounding on the doors of the gas chambers, but do not view what’s inside, only glimpsing the aftermath.
“Son of Saul” focusses on one character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Sonderkommando – those inmates chosen selected by the SS guards to accompany prisoners to the gas chambers and to clean up afterwards, taking bodies to the ovens and disposing of the ashes. One day, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. “But you never had a son,” someone says. “Not by my wife,” he replies. As the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion (which really did take place on 7 October 1944), Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and organise a proper burial.
This film owes part of its success to a brilliant Géza Röhrig in the role of Saul, terse (his first words occur more than 10 minutes into the film: “I will”), enigmatic, slight and street-wise, always moving. Röhrig is a New York-based Jewish Hungarian writer, poet and part-time actor who recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
While given extra food and relative freedom of movement around the camp, the life of Sonderkommandos was limited, as the Nazis ensured that they killed them every few months in order to erase the possibility of witnesses. Incredibly, buried Sonderkommando eyewitness accounts from Auschwitz survived the war and were published under the title “Voices From Beneath the Ashes” (also known as “The Scrolls of Auschwitz”); these provided key inspiration to director László Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer.
Saul tries valiantly to humanise death, to give a sense of individuality to the many dead. Is his attempt suitable? Possibly not, for – as one character says to him, “You fail the living for the dead.” But as an act that demands humanity – or possibly as an indication of Saul’s serious psychosis – it is powerful.
Technically, “Son of Saul” is a marvel, with a virtuoso cinematic style that almost always shows only Saul’s point of view. Backgrounds are out of focus, and we generally only see what Saul sees and experiences. There are almost no “wide” shots; everything is in close-up or “mid” shot, showing only half a person (much to discuss here). There are also very few edits, including the film’s opening shot, which goes on possibly for three or more minutes. (There could be fewer than 200 edits in the whole film, compared to many thousands of edits in standard film fare.) The result is claustrophobic, powerful and unique.
The film’s European roots enhance its sense of verisimilitude. Unlike “Schindler’s List” – indeed a towering and emotional achievement – “Son of Saul” takes place in the “real” languages of the characters: Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Polish and Hebrew. Those who understand Hungarian and German, in particular, will get the most out of this film, because knowing the national and religious background of each speaker is important.
“Son of Saul” contains no “back story”; the film just begins. Nor is there an epilogue; when the film ends, you know it’s over.