Hungary's Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, "Son of Saul", is not like any other Holocaust picture you may have seen. Set in Auschwitz-Birkenau, October 1944, filmmaker László Nemes and cinematographer Mátyas Erdely were determined to not make an "appealing" or "beautiful" movie. Auschwitz was a death factory. One convoy of Jewish prisoners after another arrived and were summarily exterminated. The German SS formed Sonderkommando, selecting able-bodied Jews who were isolated from the rest of the camp and forced to aid in the lethal process of the gas chambers.
One Hungarian member of this "special" group, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), happens upon a body he believes is his son. In his torturous grief, he devises a plan to rescue the body from the crematorium, find a rabbi to pray the Kaddish for his son and bury him in a proper grave.
As you can imagine, "Son of Saul" is not an easy film to watch. Director Nemes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer, insisted that Erdely make his camera Saul's constant companion, following him always at eye level. And while this provides a realistic depiction of this heart-wrenching story, the constant movement also made me quite queasy.
Saul is dressed in a jacket with a large red cross emblazoned on the back, which the SS employed as a target should one of these Jews try to escape. For Nemes, the reality of that cross became a visual aid for the camera.
The subject of the Holocaust is wretched in any medium. Nemes' much-honored film is no different. But I found it particularly disturbing, and understandably so, because of the futility of Saul's obsession. "Son of Saul" is completely horrifying, and yet, we cannot, and should not, look away.
Opinion: See It Now!
"Son of Saul" is unlike any other movie about the Holocaust that you have ever seen. (No, Jeanne and I did not compare notes!) Instead of true villains like Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth from "Schindler's List", or Liam Neeson's hero from the same film, "Son of Saul" features a group of concentration camp inmates called the Sommerkommando, and the Nazi SS who made sure the daily tasks of extermination were handled with speed and precision. It's a disturbing look at this dark period of man's inhumanity. It is also a motion picture that is favored to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
The filmmakers, led by first-time feature director László Nemes, based their story on a book of eyewitness accounts, found many years after the war, entitled "Voices from Beneath the Ashes", also known as "The Scrolls of Auschwitz". The entries were made by actual members of the Sommerkommando who described their daily chores.
As depicted in "Son of Saul", these tasks included directing the newly-arrived Jews to remove all their clothing, telling them to place certain items on hooks to be retrieved after the group showers they believed they were taking, and other lies. They then shepherded the concentration camp prisoners into the gas chambers. After the Jews had all been murdered, and bodies piled onto pallets for mass burning, the Sommerkommando members then had to scrub the floors of the area to remove blood and any other human substances, thus creating a clean space for the next group.
The Sommerkommando were given certain privileges over the average prisoner. But even they were "replaced" every three or four months by the Nazis to make sure there were no witnesses to the exterminations.
"Son of Saul" is unique in many ways, most significantly in the use of a hand-held camera which follows Saul (Géza Röhrig) from directly behind. Röhrig is actually a Jewish Hungarian poet and writer with limited acting experience, who currently resides in Brooklyn. Saul wears a jacket throughout the film with a large red cross painted on the back. The Nazis used this cross to identify and shoot potential escapees from the camps, but Nemes' crew used the cross as a visual guide for their camera.
The effect of this technique is distressing in that the viewer sees essentially what Saul sees. When nude corpses emerge fresh from the ovens, piled several layers high onto pallets for future burning, we see only partial bodies --- a leg here, a shoulder there. But the overall impact is jaw-dropping in its horror.
"Son of Saul" -- please read Jeanne's review for a synopsis --- is painful to watch. It is the latest in a long line of Holocaust-related films that are critical reminders of a period in our history that must never be repeated.
Opinion: See It Now!