Film Review – Son of Saul
Son of Saul
Sometimes I like to go into a film screening blind, meaning I do not know much of anything about it. It works sometimes, and I am pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, it ends up being an experience I could have prepared myself for better. This is exactly what happened with a December screening of the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, the Cannes Grand Prix winner in 2015 and now a film nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film.
Son of Saul is plainly is the most disturbing film I have ever seen, bar none. I had an inkling about what the film entailed when it opens on Saul (Géza Röhrig), clothed in a gray jacket with a large red “X” painted on the back, helping people toward train cars. They are loaded up and Saul joins them. In the back of my mind, I get a tingle of familiarity as to what this may be about. It does not fully hit me until Saul is helping people undress and pushing them into a shower area, promising to get their clothes back and have hot food on the other side. The doors shut and immediately Saul and other workers start taking down the clothes, screams and cries follow from the now-realized gas chambers of Auschwitz. It should be noted that my mouth was agape during this whole intro sequence and I was on the verge of tears.
Son of Saul follows Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. They are concentration camp workers who are pulled from the general population and made to work for the Nazis. They help with the extermination of their own kind. They are also called “Bearer of Secrets” as they know exactly what is going on in the camp and the Nazis’ procedures. They are routinely exterminated themselves after a period of time, so the threat of death still hangs over their heads.
Why is this film of something we see so often depicted on screen so disturbing? Director László Nemes does not leave anything hidden. What he gives the viewer is a raw, unbridled depiction of the extermination of the Jewish people. No other film has come close to what Nemes has done. However, this is not the story of the Holocaust. This is the story of Saul, a man who the camera focuses on solely, only briefly directing its gaze away from him when he is conversation with others or something is going on in the area surrounding him that needs our attention. Saul is monotone in his expressions and drive. He is only trying to survive. All that changes when a boy survives the gas chamber, but he is soon put out of his misery. Saul seems to believe that this boy is his son, and thus begins the primary focus of the film. Saul is determined to claim the boy, find a rabbi to perform a Kaddish, and bury him properly.
I had a hard time in believing Saul’s drive to bury this boy. He takes so many risks, not just for himself and this dead boy, but also with his brethren at the camp. He has tunnel vision and does not seem to care for anything or anyone else. Just because I could not believe it does not mean it is not possible. This man is in a place and state that we cannot identify or properly empathize with because nothing like this has happened to us. He is clinging to what morality and hope he has left and this boy gives him a holy purpose.
Son of Saul is not a film that I will likely ever watch again, but it is not something I would discourage others from seeing. The trailers do not show you what the film is really about due to the graphic nature of it. This poignant film should replace Schindler’s List in high school as a film to see while studying World War II. The images both in focus and those in the background will stay with me the rest of my life. This is a traumatizing film that you must prepare yourself for, but it will remind you forever of what atrocities happened under the Nazi regime. Son of Saul ended up being in my top ten films of 2015, but I still left the film whispering “Fme.”