Son of Saul (2015)
Written & Directed by László Nemes
In the midst of the obscene and the profane does it make sense to eke out some small piece of the sacred? What value do rituals and beliefs have when confronted when the horrific abomination of humanity’s darkest hour? Do we need to shield these artifacts of faith, these dying flames from decimation? First-time feature director László Nemes chooses to film the story with an impressionistic style, almost every single scene so tightly focused on Saul, a Hungarian Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz. The background is nearly abstracted in nearly every scene, our protagonist being shoved along through a seemingly never-ending series of atrocities against humanity. Saul reaches out clinging to a practically useless ritual as a means to disconnect from what is happening around and to him.
The film begins by explaining that Saul is part of the Sonderkommando, work units in the concentration camps composed of the very prisoners doomed to die. They were sadistically forced to guide their fellow Jews into the showers where the new arrivals would be gassed to death. Then the Sonderkommando had to move the bodies to the crematorium and rifle through the belongings of the dead, turning over any valuables to the Nazi guards. Saul is very aware of what his actions are responsible for and spends a large portion of the film walking through the camp with a gray cake of ashes on his face. When we first meet him, Saul is intentionally numb to his duties but what snaps him out of this stasis is the discovery of a young boy who has survived the gas chamber.
Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando move the boy as ordered and our protagonist witnesses a Nazi smother the boy to death, sending his corpse off to Mengele for dissection. Saul suddenly sees this dead boy as his metaphorical son, eventually referring to him as his child when trying to convince other prisoners to help him. He becomes obsessed with the idea of giving this anonymous child a proper Jewish burial and seeks to find a rabbi in the camp who will agree to perform the burial rites. To make this happen, he begins calling in favors and making deals with multiple prisoners, eventually getting pulled into a conspiracy to pull off an assault on the guards and escape. The idea that he will survive to live anything close to a semblance of life doesn’t cross Saul’s mind; all he wants is to see this child buried correctly.
You are meant to be overwhelmed by the perpetual forward motion of this movie, by how chaotic life in Auschwitz was. Murders and obscenities are performed often just off camera, but we are clinging to Saul, praying he guides us out of these horrific spaces. The film is brutally confrontational without making the audience wallow in images of humanity desecration. Nemes knows where the line is, how to be true to what the Holocaust was without being exploitative. The main take away for the audience should be the high levels of disorientation, how any sense of community was torn away from the Jewish people intentionally. Unified they posed a threat but broken down into mechanistic animals, driven by paranoia and quickly snapping on each other at the smallest transgression.
In the same way that Saul, by merely witnessing the extinguishing of a young boy’s life, a stranger to him, makes his life about holding this lost soul above the chaos, we become endeared to Saul. We never get his backstory, we know he is Hungarian, but we never know about the existence of a family, the circumstances of his arrest. We care about Saul because he is a human being deserving of life beyond the squalid hell he’s been plunged into. It is a human obligation to see the dignity in others and protect them from the sins we can heap upon each other.