Critically Acclaimed Holocaust Horror Film Offers Unique Cinematic Techniques
Following an impressive festival run, Son of Saul is set to open in a limited theatrical release in the United States on December 18. Its accolades include winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Official Selection by both the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, and being chosen as Hungary’s official selection for the Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. That is to say, it’s an important and ultimately fulfilling film, albeit one that requires emotional stamina of its viewers.
Son of Saul takes us into the German concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the fall of 1944, the peak of its murderous operation. We follow Saul, played in demur, shambling, yet determined fashion by Geza Rohrig, as he tries to save what may be his son’s body from the ovens and give him a clandestine Jewish burial. In order to do this, he must not only retrieve and conceal the body, but also find a rabbi willing to risk his own life to officiate.
We watch Saul’s efforts as he continually flaunts the rules of the camp to accomplish his goals, giving the viewer a de facto tour of the machinery of the extermination process.
The opening 10 minutes of the film are perhaps the most harrowing; we descend into a literal hell, starting with the unloading of a fresh transport of Jewish prisoners. Saul is a member of a Sonderkommando, inmates forced to dispose of bodies in and around the gas chambers and crematoria. In the film we watch as this select group of Jewish prisoners is forced to escort new arrivals to the gas chamber and to assure them that once clean, they’ll have “tea” and “hot soup.” The arrivals then are made to undress before being herded into the “showers.”
We do not enter the chamber with them, but watch as the bolts are fastened and listen as the cries grow and the thumping of fists on the doors reaches a crescendo, then stops. It’s an altogether terrifying and shudder-inducing experience.
Director and screenwriter Laszlo Nemes, who spent seven months working on the script at The Jerusalem International Film Lab, achieves this immersive, first-person effect by tracking shots that focus solely on Saul, as we follow him through his daily ordeal. Most of the action happens in a soft blur around him, enough for us to see what’s happening without ever really catching the look on anyone’s face. Most of the horror of this fictional drama takes place off-screen; our ears fill in the details. When we see a man kneeling with a gun to his head, Saul walks away. The gunshot that echoes off screen seconds later tells us all we need to know.
This cinematic technique sets this film apart from others of the genre. Another technique focuses on the director’s desire to capture each step in the extermination process. We see Jewish prisoners through their fate in the chambers to the removal of the bodies, called “pieces” by the Nazis, and the cleaning of the chamber floor. We see the bodies being raised into giant ovens, the shoveling of coal to stoke the fires, and the disposing of the ashes in a nearby lake. The way these scenes are revealed alongside the narrative, gradually over the course of the film, is a credit to the filmmaker’s instincts. To show it all at once would be too difficult to absorb.
Once Saul decides he’s going to give his son a proper burial, he goes about it with such stubborn determination that the film often feels like a strange sort of thriller. We become so involved in his pursuit that the horrors of the camp become like layers of hell he must pass through in order to fulfill his single-minded goal. The film doesn’t dwell on the atrocities, but rather moves quickly past them on Saul’s journey. We identify with the meaning he’s chosen for himself, a meaning that even runs counter to that of his fellow Sonderkommandos who need Saul to help them with a revolt.
Son of Saul, like its protagonist, remains stubbornly fixated on its intention, which is not to tell a story of heroism or even of survival. Instead, the film gives us an unimaginably real depiction of the concentration camps through the eyes of a man whose defiance is neither escape nor rescue, but the proper Jewish burial of one person among the desecration of thousands.