Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes makes an auspicious debut with this harrowing portrait of life and death at Auschwitz-Birkenau that also becomes a tale of redemption for one of its Jewish prisoners. And Saul (Geza Rohrig) is more than just a prisoner: he’s one of the Sonderkommandos, inmates who, in return for some paltry privileges and a chance to live a bit longer, herd those selected for execution into the gas chambers, collect their clothes and valuables and then take their corpses to the crematoria for disposal (and clean up the ashes). As some commentators have observed, the system was one that only increased the barbarity of Nazi methods, since in a way it tried to make the prisoners themselves complicit in the fulfillment of the Final Solution.
The opening sequence of the film—in which cinematographer Matyas Erdely, utilizing the old, square aspect ratio that concentrates our eyes on a limited perspective, rigorously follows Saul as he engages in his grisly work, keeping the focus on him as the horrors occur just out of reach visually (though we can hear the screams of the dying)—is incredibly gripping, and that same claustrophobic effect continues throughout the film, which never leaves Saul’s presence. The effect is almost of a single tracking shot that makes it impossible for us to look away from Saul even as our view remains limited by his experience, the terrors of which, of course, he strains to minimize.
But in that first sequence at the gas chamber something extraordinary happens: a young boy, who should have been killed by the fumes, has just barely survived. The camp doctors are astonished, and quickly finish the job; but they intend an autopsy to try to determine how the youth could have escaped death. More astoundingly, Saul recognizes the boy as his son, or at least says that he does; and he’s determined both that the body will not be desecrated and that he will find among the prisoners a rabbi to say the Kaddish over it. That quest becomes so all-consuming that Saul brushes aside demands that he join in an uprising the other Sonderkommandos are planning, since their term of service are coming to an end and they are scheduled to be liquidated and replaced. (That aspect of the plot situates the tale in early October, 1944, quite late in the war—a fact confirmed by Saul’s Hungarian nationality, since the roundup of Jews from that country was delayed until spring of that year.)
Clearly for Saul the desire to honor this one body with a proper burial is more than a chance decision, or even a father’s desire to see that his son’s corpse is treated rightly. It’s a means by which Saul can, in some small measure, atone for his role in the camp’s grisly work, a reassertion of his humanity, and of his Jewish identity, in the face of the profound evil that he feels he’s collaborated in. Whether the boy is truly his biological son is immaterial—for Saul he represents every Jew, and the need to recover to some degree the dignity that has been ripped from them all.
Of course no single story—whether it be Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” on the screen or Elie Wiesel’s “Night” on the page—can encompass the full horror of the Holocaust, and “Son of Saul” is no exception; Nemes realizes this, as the intense focus on a single man, both narratively and visually, suggests. Whether the redemption scenario can bear the weight of meaning Nemes places upon it is debatable. Still, he and his co-writer Clara Royer have adroitly employed the film’s concentration to point toward a larger perspective. By including the references to the prisoner rebellion of October 7, for example, they raise the issue of the types of resistance that individuals could choose—violent, as in the case of the rebels, or spiritual, as with Saul. And by alluding to the imminent execution of the Sonderkommando unit within the same context, the film points up the fanaticism of the Nazis in trying to complete their genocidal mission even as the Soviets were pushing further and further into Eastern Europe. So while “Son of Saul” necessarily presents a limited viewpoint, it’s one that encourages the viewer to think beyond it.
And within that perspective, it’s extraordinarily powerful, the combination of Nemes’ kinetic direction, Laszlo Rajk’s grimly evocative production design, Erdely’s subtle camerawork (which reveals a great deal at the margins of the boxy frame), Tamas Zanyi’s sound design (which tells much that the visuals don’t explicitly show and creates a cacophony of languages and ambient noise) and Rohrig’s intense performance carrying us along on an emotional whirlwind. The supporting cast does uniformly excellent work, but their contributions are like pieces of a mosaic in which Rohrig is the dominant figure.
There’s no question that “Son of Saul” is difficult to watch. But there’s no question that it’s worth watching.