Son of Saul, 2015.
Directed by Laszlo Nemes.
Starring Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar and Urs Rechn.
In an unnamed German concentration camp towards the end of World War II, Saul (Geza Rohrig) is a prisoner but also a member of the Special Squad (Sonderkommando), living and working inside the death factories. Despite all the horrors that have passed before his eyes, he still retains a spark of humanity. He witnesses a teenage boy being killed by a Nazi officer and wants to make sure he has a proper, Jewish burial. And, as he pursues his aim, he endangers everything, including his own life and that of everybody else in the Special Squad.
As he wrote and directed Son of Saul, Laszlo Nemes had a different kind of holocaust story in mind. For him, too many films had made the mistake of showing hope, optimism even, and depicting survivors. This would be no Schindler’s List, but a journey through a living hell where the prisoners had been so numbed by the demands of survival that even speaking to each other used up energy they didn’t have.
That, in itself, is ambitious enough, but this is also comes from a director helming his first feature film at the age of 39 – despite looking like he’s fresh out of college. Even more remarkable has been its success: an Oscar, a Golden Globe, the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes and more. It’s the kind of haul, and the kind of film, that any director would be proud of at the peak of their career, let alone the start.
And it’s a work of outstanding maturity, taking the audience on a journey through the never ending nightmare that is the concentration camp. It’s never spelt out that it’s Auschwitz, but it is. Nor is it spelt out that it’s towards the end of the War, but it is: the trainloads of people arriving at the camp are almost non-stop as the Nazis accelerate what they chillingly called The Final Solution. Saul and the other members of the Special Squad live apart from the rest of the prisoners, have better conditions and better food, but how they earn it makes your hair stand on end. Helping the new arrivals undress, ushering them into the “showers”, collecting up the clothes and valuables to the thundering roar of panic in the gas chamber and keeping some items for themselves: it’s all in a day’s work. As is cleaning the chamber afterwards, burning the bodies and disposing of the ashes. But as far as the Nazi guards are concerned, they might be useful, but they’re still Jewish, so they’re also there to be beaten, humiliated and generally maltreated.
Nemes navigates us through the exhausting, draining journey with consummate skill. The camera follows Saul so that he, and anybody else who comes close to him, is in sharp focus. Everything and everybody else is blurred, but we can still tell what’s going on. People are being shot, the crowds shuffling into the gas chamber are totally naked and those huge mounds in the background are corpses. Saul is also surrounded by the sound of chaos, a babel of voices and languages, screams of terror, beating, gunshots, often all at the same time. It’s a cacophony of the damned.
Conversely, there’s very little actual dialogue. The expression on Saul’s face and what we’re watching on the screen mean that words are almost redundant, and those that are used come in short, staccato bursts. It’s as if the prisoners are so numb that they’ve forgotten how to communicate or simply no longer have the inclination or energy. Everything is about staying alive, keeping the mind and body on the right side of survival.
Rohrig gives a spellbinding performance as Saul, with an expressionless, mask-like face and near-dead eyes that speak volumes for the horrors he’s witnessed. Yet there is still a flicker of humanity there, not just the one that spurs him on to make sure the dead boy is given a proper burial, but one that means he can’t look any of the new arrivals in the eye as he helps them undress before guiding them into the “showers.”
Saul believes the boy is his son. From what another Special Squad member says, this probably isn’t the case – not in the literal sense, anyway. But he is a son of Saul in the sense that he’s Jewish, something which also applies to Saul himself. What’s important is that he’s showing the teenager the love and devotion of a father, something that’s in very short supply in the camp. There may not be any survivors in Nemes’ vision, but there is just the tiniest glimpse of light.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★