“Son of Saul,” an in-depth look at the dirtiest job in Auschwitz (movie review)

By Jeff Boudreaux


Every generation has its own cinematic indictment of the Holocaust. In 1959, George Stevens adapted the perennial bestseller “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and showcased a young girl along with her family and friends, seeking refuge from persecution (and imminent death) in an attic. A touching and highly emotional film, it confronted the notion that Jewish people were anything other than people in an era that was still reeling with anti-Semitism. Then came the much-applauded “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Steven Spielberg’s timeless account of one man’s crusade to save a few precious lives from the snares of the Third Reich. Since then, films such as “Life is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” depicted life and death in Nazi concentration camps, rightfully eliciting pathos for the six million individuals that were murdered during mankind’s darkest hour. In “Son of Saul,” first-time feature Director László Nemes places us right into the heart of the most notorious death camp of all, Auschwitz, and into the shoes of the men who disposed of the bodies of their fellow Jews along with any evidence of these crimes.


The year was 1944. In the waning days of the second war in Europe, the extermination tactics of the Germans are in high gear. Thousands of Jews from all over Europe, each and every day, are brought in by trains, told to strip naked and enter the “showers.” Faceless denizens who aren’t happy about their containment, yet they have no idea of their impending doom amidst the upbeat promises of hot soup and job opportunities that will follow their delousing. Forcibly made to do the Nazis’ dirty work are strong and able Jewish men known as Sonderkommandos, or “the bearers of secrets.” They must hold the doors to the gas chambers shut, rifle through the possessions of the dead, and scrub the floors where all of the oozing bodies lay in the days, weeks or sometimes months before their own date with death. This is the story of one of these men, a Hungarian Jew named Saul Ausländer (remarkably played by Géza Röhrig, a poet whose only other acting credit is a mini-series from 1989), and what is effectively the last days of his life.

Son of Saul

Just as Saul and the other men are beginning to clean up the latest atrocities of the gas chamber, a boy is discovered alive. It is here where we are reminded that there was no greater embodiment of evil than Hitler’s Germany. Following a careful examination by the Nazi doctor, a well-placed Hippocratic hand over the child’s nose and mouth make sure that the job is finished. As for Saul, he seemingly recognizes the child and makes a deal with the Jewish physician who’s ordered to perform an autopsy (Sándor Zsótér of “White God”) for the boy’s body. Why? Saul believes it to be his son. Yet, no one else seems to share that belief – particularly the viewer. Regardless, risking what are most likely the last days of his life, Saul undertakes a quest within the constantly chaotic camp to find a rabbi among the walking dead in order for Saul to administer a proper Jewish burial. None of this will be easy as Sonderkommandos do not have the full run of the camp and rabbis are usually among the first to be executed. Besides, he faces opposition from his fellow prisoners, led by Abraham (Levente Molnár), who are planning a revolt and feel that he may jeopardize their one shot at freedom (and with it life).


This harrowing journey of a condemned man and his familial bond is truly an effective piece of filmmaking, and it’s quite different from what audiences today are accustomed to. The director has decided to present this story in Academy ratio (1.37:1), otherwise known as “full screen.” A rarity in film since the advent of widescreen cameras in the early 1950’s, the narrow lens proves to be a perfect choice as it constructs a claustrophobic descent into the head of Ausländer, with a bird’s eye view of the horrors that surround him. After all, why should the audience have anywhere else to go, except for where Saul is inclined to take us? Most of the deaths and bodies of the victims are blurred in the background, disassociating the viewer (along with Saul) from the nameless and now faceless victims of Germany’s “final solution.” This is a very rarely-used filmmaking technique, and in this case – it packs a tremendous wallop.


The director only focuses on background events when it suits him, and what we are allowed to see changes on a dime. For example, in a pivotal scene where Saul is held at gunpoint from a skirmish with a prisoner known as “the Renegade,” a former rabbi who wants nothing to do with his past, the SS commandant is clearly seen several feet away while asking for Saul’s account of the events that led up to this other man attempting suicide in the river bank. Through his reply, the officer finds out that Saul is Hungarian, and there is a language barrier. When a translator from the ranks of the “Oberkapo” is called in, immediately the two men become blurred – and the focus is the only thing that has changed in the shot. This is astonishingly effective in providing us with what may be Nemes’ intention of humanizing these historically-maligned Nazi collaborators. Lastly, there is no score to be heard throughout the entire film, as the loud atmosphere of the camp, its commandants and kapos, provides an exacerbating soundtrack of anxiety and despair.


Winner of the prestigious “Grand Prix” at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for best foreign language film at the 88th annual Academy Awards, “Son of Saul” is the “Mad Max: Fury Road” of Holocaust movies. That is, the film grabs the viewer by the throat and doesn’t rescind its grasp until the final credits roll. As it is, the ending is intended to perplex and will be ripe for discussion, long after you leave the theater. And all at once, you’ll be thankful that our indirect experiences with this subject matter are relegated to our enjoyment of a film, and won’t transcend unto a day-after-day nightmare as it was for the individuals that comprised the ranks of the Sonderkommando.

***1/2 (three and a half out of four stars)

“Son of Saul” will be screening exclusively at The Theatres at Canal Place, beginning on Friday, Feb. 26.

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