In a nutshell: Son of Saul articulates the unspeakable, locking the viewer into a Holocaust hell where human degradation is absolute, beyond the horrific, numbing.
Australian release date: Thu 25 Feb
Set in Auschwitz at the peak of the Nazis’ extermination program, Son of Saul is the most profoundly disturbing and confusing of film experiences, prompting a remark from a fellow attendee after the screening that has been ringing in my ears ever since: “There must be something wrong with me, because I didn’t feel anything.”
That, I believe, goes to the point of the film, which is to trap the viewer in a world of almost total human degradation, where the horror of the situation is unrelenting and so extreme that the effect is to dull, not evoke, emotional response. Like the Sonderkommando characters from whose perspective the film is shot, we are left numb.
The Sonderkommando comprised Jewish prisoners selected to assist the Nazis in the exterminations. They were separated from the rest of the prisoners, the backs of their fatigues marked with a red cross. They were assigned the dirty work: transferring the corpses to the crematoriums after mass gassings, scrubbing down the “showers” in preparation for next use, shovelling the ashes of the murdered into the nearby river.
They were rewarded for their labours by certain “privileges”, such as being spared the gas chambers and random shootings at the whim of the guards and officers, and provided with ample food to sustain their physical strength. Their service was limited to 80 days, after which it was terminated. By execution.
The film is shot in an almost square format, which has an unsettling, claustrophobic effect that forces the perspective of the Sonderkommando upon you and hems you into their world.
The Sonderkommando loom large in frame, while the grisly scenes going on around them are relegated to the background, often out of focus. The result is that the atrocities in which they assist are peripheral, the queues of newly arrived prisoners all but faceless as they are jammed into the gas chambers on promise of hot soup after their ablutions. Hence, the doomed cease to exist as individuals for the Sonderkommando (and us), enabling them to get about their terrible work with a chilling pragmatism. Except for Saul (Géza Röhrig).
He identifies the corpse of a child as his own. Giving the child a burial in accordance with Jewish religious custom becomes his mission. He must find a rabbi to recite the appropriate burial rites, the Kaddish. His futile repeated efforts to do so take on the feel of a recurring nightmare.
The other Sonderkommando have no patience with his quest, but Saul pushes on against impossible odds, willing to risk his life, the lives of others, anything. While doubt is cast as to whether the child is really his, that is not the point. It is his humanity, in the final flickering of its dying, that he is seeking to salvage. Saul, it seems, is the only member of the Sonderkommando who is not dead inside. And in this, captor and captive are equal.
This terrible state of degradation, of annihilation of the human spirit on both sides, is articulated in the visual poetry of Son of Saul in a way that I have never encountered in any other film set in the Nazi era. Just extraordinary – and even more so, this is director László Nemes’ first feature film.
I have been to Dachau. It was not one of the major extermination camps, but I determined never to visit another. Not to avoid the emotional repercussions, but because I felt I had seen enough, that I had as much an idea of the nature of these places as was necessary to understand the horror, evil and enveloping stillness that reside in historical sites of unthinkable human suffering. Visits to other camps seemed ghoulish.
I have been to the Burma Railway and one of the nearby war cemetaries, and have walked Hellfire Pass. I am glad to have done so, but will not return. I doubt I will visit any more such sites anywhere.
And I do not think I will attend any more movies set in Nazi concentration camps. After Son of Saul, there is no point.
Movie website: sonyclassics.com/sonofsaul/
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