One of the most startlingly realistic films to come out of both the NYFF and Hamptons International Film Festival is the devastating yet brutally engrossing Son of Saul, directed and written by László Nemes and co-written with Clara Royer, with Géza Röhrig in the title role. The film is unique and set apart from the canon of Holocaust films which typically present their narrative in a fairly straightforward manner through the instrumentation of plot arcs and wide-angled perspectives of many characters. To Nemes such historical narrative skirts the realm of fictionalized account and loses power in the delineation. For the director such story-telling is more easily dismissed because of the typical cinematography used to relate the action which keeps the audience an observer and not a ready participant.
In Son of Saul, Nemes’ intention is to have the audience interact with the chaos and black terrors of Auschwitz primarily through their aural and visual senses as participants. His overriding passion is to make the film felt experience which is visceral and organic and therefore, not as easily forgotten or obviated. He accomplishes this by adjusting the camera so that for most of the film, one feels as if one is placed inside the being of Saul and in effect is “standing in Saul’s shoes.” Seeing and hearing via Saul’s perspective as Saul moves from emotionally deadening trauma to emotionally deadening trauma, we become like Saul who is a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The Sonderkommandos were the “privileged” workers with the red X on their backs. They conducted the highly secret work in the crematoriums and then joined their fellow Jews in the ovens after three months, so knowledge about what they did, saw, and heard would be wiped out with them forever.
Nemes strikes upon the most effective way to relate the experiences he gleaned from written Sonderkommando accounts without ameliorating any of the shocking events and horrific experiences the prisoners recounted while they worked in the buildings of death. Nemes does this by directing a large percentage of the film with the camera viewpoint looking over Saul’s shoulder, to focus on Saul’s perspective. The principle action of what Saul experiences is only seen in a narrow trajectory; we, as Saul, see straight ahead or what is at the opaque periphery of Saul’s central vision.
Nothing in the action is determinate or foreshadowed; nothing is related about the past or suggested about the future; nothing is outside of the current action. There is a story arc, but it is spare. Nemes is not concerned about how Saul was caught and arrived at Auschwitz. Nor is the director concerned about what German guards or Kapos think or feel; they are ancillary bullying brutes who stand guard and bark orders. They are heard, rarely seen, most probably because prisoners had their eyes in a non-confrontational downward cast; they looked straight ahead and rarely turned their heads to look anyone in the eye, something which Saul never does. When he turns his head it is watchfully, furtively. Nemes is only concerned about what Saul processes through his being so that we can process it with him. Most of what we see is in Saul’s camera view and what he experiences remains in the present and moves from moment to moment. We move and see as Saul does.
During the exposition at the beginning, Nemes relays that Saul is like an automaton. He goes through the motions of an industrial, robotic existence as a death dealer. As a Sonderkommando he functions to herd prisoners into the shower gas chambers, pulls/drags the limp, naked carcasses from the showers onto carts and piles them in the elevators to be incinerated. Out of the periphery we see glimpses of the naked bodies being pulled and dragged; we see no faces and the Sonderkommando refer to the people as “pieces” to remain aloof from their work as the living dead who are “dead already.” We see the “pieces” piled on carts, shoved in ovens all from Saul’s camera view. In effect Nemes has dropped us into the nullifying, annihilating heart of the Final Solution. There we experience the full force of that “abomination of desolation.” And we understand with all our nerve endings shattered that this is an overwhelming manifestation of evil and that evil is a power and is tangible and real.
In the background there is a continual cacophony of sounds, a polyglot of language murmurings in the voices of Jewish prisoners from many countries. There is the harsh clanging of metal, harsh shouting in German, a rushing of indeterminate noise, and the overarching sound which pierces above the lesser sounds. That constant rumbling is of heavy machinery whirring, grating, clamping; it is a symbolic representation of the mammoth, bestial, killing machine as it devours its prey and occludes all other human elements in this camp designed for annihilation. It is the sound of mechanized, grinding death.
Saul knows little except what he has been ordered to do. He is always in motion, rushing and running and pulling and stirring the pot of death; we see these actions head on, in part. or in periphery, without seeing any other global details about the camp. At the outset of the film, Saul is pulling “pieces” from the showers and hauling them onto carts for the ovens, when he and other Sonderkommando discover a young boy from the gas chamber who is still breathing, but is comatose. This is a miracle of life. In shock, Saul perceives him to be his son who is about the same age.
From this point on Saul has a mission. Though he must continue with his wicked work feeding the mechanized beast of death, Saul is fueled toward resistance and affirmation. We are sparked by the suspense of his immediate action; what will he do? Will he succeed in keeping the boy alive or be found out and shot or worse? He manages to have the doctor who, like him, is Hungarian, examine the boy. But by this point, the boy has died. Saul arranges with the doctor to hide the body so that he may give his son a proper burial in the earth and have a rabbi say the Kaddish over him.
This is an outrageous act of foolhardy bravery for both: it is an act of resistance against the mechanized beast. The doctor agrees. The irony is great: Saul is not religious; he does not know the Kaddish to say it. However, we are struck that it is imperative for him that his son’s soul be returned to a spiritual place and he receive this protective salvation with prayer underneath a blanket of earth.
Saul’s desire is a life affirming act of great humanity, a proclamation of peace and rationality. It displaces the horrific, soul-killing brutally and the absence of compassion which allows genocide to occur. Nemes also suggests that Saul’s moral imperative on a meta level is a symbolic resistance to the “abomination of desolation” that all killing machines represent. A proper burial is a declaration that life must continue cyclically. Saul’s impulse to bury his son is Saul’s act of rebellion against his wicked, cowardly complicity in feeding the death machine and keeping its flames stoked with the power of his fear. After all he has accepted being a Sonderkommando rather than to immediately go to the ovens, because he fears losing his life. This is a dark irony, for by fearing and under cowardly coercion killing others, he has rendered his life not worth living, a condition all Sonderkommandos refer to as being “already dead.” His virtuous urgency to place the body at rest in its proper earthly refuge, is a primal scream of defiance. With it Saul is claiming, “Here is one human spirit and one body who will not be turned over to the ‘beast.'”
From the whispered comments of his fellow workers, there is no way out except up the chimneys for everyone we see, including Saul and of course, the body of his son which will begin to rot unless Saul finds a rabbi, a shovel, someone to help him dig the grave and an escape plan for the woods by the lake, the best burial ground. We are on edge as Saul encounters problem after problem. We are further shackled by anxiety when Saul discerns through the polyglot of language confusion that his fellow Sonderkommando are directing him to accompany a “friend” to sneak to another part of the camp. He must leave the body unburied for a time to pick up a package. For those familiar with the Sonderkommandos‘ historic accounts, they will know what the package is and why it is so important. For Saul, the package is immaterial. His personal mandate is his son’s burial and a rabbi saying the Kaddish. Obtaining the package is a diversion he doesn’t need but is caught up in against his will, like everything else he experiences at Auschwitz.
Will Saul be able to symbolically overthrow everything the killing machine stands for, its bestiality, its death-filled abyss of hate and nihilism ,with the symbolic act of burying his son? Nemes has engaged and stirred us to desire what Saul wants, despite the likelihood that he will fail. However, he may succeed. His belief that the boy is his son (we never really know if this is true), and his extension of love and grace to him is a hope-filled act, even though Saul is not properly equipped to perform it. Nevertheless, it is Saul’s intention and belief that is so purposeful, clear and faith-filled. Saul has manifested his hope through action and this he throws in the face of chaos, confusion, torment and death. Saul’s hope becomes our hope and we can only follow him to the conclusion of his destiny.
Nemes has pulled together an amazing film because of brilliant choices. The cinematography, sound, and other artistic decisions, including his choice of Röhrig as Saul, are innovative, incisive and meaningful. He has created a soul searching film which, though at times is difficult to watch, is worth seeing for its artistry and intense emotional power. In expressing the deep themes about life, the courage to seek second chances and the choices we make that are intensely morally human, the director has configured a gem of a film.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0745643841] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B001DA9S90]