SON OF SAUL (review)
SON OF SAUL
Written by Laszlo Nemes and Clara Royer / Directed by Laszlo Nemes/Starring Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar
I always make certain when I watch a movie that is set in a concentration camp, especially if it is in Auschwitz-Birkenau, that there has to be light outside when I leave the theatre. As the son of a parent who spent the last year of World War II in that camp, I had heard so many horror stories of the atrocities my mother experienced there, which included having her own mother sent to the crematorium. Being Catholic, her life in the camp was just a tad easier, as she was relegated to work in the kitchens, but she had lost many people she knew. I went to Auschwitz in the summer of 1998 and actually saw the bunker that housed my mother and I will be forever grateful that on that day, the weather was dismal and gloomy, allowing for the heaviness to sink in even further. Now, when I leave a theatre after seeing a Holocaust-themed film, I have to look upwards and give thanks to the sun; it brings life and warmth and provides hope that inexplicable evil like that will never darken humanity to that extent again. Having lost my mom some time ago, I naturally approached seeing SON OF SAUL with some anxiety.
Set in 1944, a group of Jewish prisoners, known as the Sonderkommando, are made to perform a number of gruesome duties, which include escorting fellow prisoners to the gas chambers, sorting through the belongings of those who have just died for riches, shovelling out the ashes from the crematorium ovens and digging holes in the grounds large enough to bury hundreds upon hundreds of emaciated dead bodies. The Sonderkommandos are “rewarded” with increased food rations or the ability to use a piece of pilfered gold to bribe someone, but each of these prisoners know that they will be, themselves, sent out to die in the gas chambers sooner or later.
First time director, Laszlo Nemes focuses on one of the Sonderkommandos, Hungarian born Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) after he finds the body of a young boy who has miraculously survived the gas chamber. Though the child eventually succumbs and the body is sent to a laboratory for an autopsy to see how and why he initially survived, Saul is obsessed on kidnapping the corpse, to find a rabbi amongst the prisoners and to give the child a proper Jewish burial. Could this actually be Saul’s son? Or, as the Nazis begin to realize they are losing the war and are quickly coming up with more efficient ways to slaughter millions of prisoners, is Saul just wanting to give one innocent child a respectful burial after witnessing and playing party to the brutalities inflicted upon a guiltless race of people?
I have to say that I found SON OF SAUL to be one of the most intense, most harrowing and emotionally draining films I have seen in a long time. I am genuinely appreciative that Nemes filmed this remarkable movie by mostly focusing on Saul’s face, while unfathomable acts of barbarism and slaughter go on in the background, slightly out of focus and hazy. It would have been too much had we been able to see everything clearly. How a non-actor like Rohrig was able to convey the vast array of emotions his character endures is mind-blowing to me. To display total subservience or courage or penultimate fear with an eye flicker, a twist of his head or a body stance is genius to behold.
I left the SON OF SAUL and went outside on an unusually warm, sunny December afternoon. I looked up at the sun, whispered a silent prayer to the millions lost for being deemed undesirable due to their religion or race or sexuality, and basked for a moment in both the glow of that sun and the beautiful experience I had just finished having.
How many sheep would you give Son of Saul?