Son of Saul is a dark imagining of concentration camp life

'Son of Saul' film
'Son of Saul' film

Few Holocaust films successfully reconcile their duty – and inability – to realize the atrocities of the concentration camps. Even fewer manage to capture the darkest imaginings of our macabre curiosities. Son of Saul is the closest I’ve seen to accomplish this, perhaps closer than I’m comfortable, or qualified, admitting.

It is October 1944, and Auschwitz-Birkenau is at the height of its operating efficiency. The titular Saul, played by Géza Rohrig, is a member of the sonderkommando, work details of Jewish prisoners.

The film’s opening scene is a brutal introduction to their daily life. After Saul escorts unsuspecting transports of Jews and other “undesirables” to their deaths in the gas chamber, their screams and battering against the door reaches an unbearable climax of sound. Even though it’s off-screen, the panic is palpable. It’s an unforgettable first impression, which is not only true of the scene, but Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, making his feature debut.

After “processing” the transport, the sonderkommando rifle through the vic- tims’ clothing for valuables and shovel their cremated ashes. For all intents and purposes, this is the seventh circle of hell.

While clearing the gas chamber of bod- ies, or “pieces,” as the Nazis call them, Saul finds a corpse he claims to be his son. The rest of the film follows Saul, quite literally and closely, as he attempts to give his pre- sumed son a dignified burial in the least dignified place on Earth.

Son of Saul is a difficult watch, and not for the reason you think. Subject matter aside, Saul is a frustrating protagonist. Single-minded in the pursuit of his son’s body and a rabbi to say the mourner’s Kaddish, Saul often acts against his own self-interest and that of his fellow prison- ers, much to their annoyance – and the viewer’s.

At roll call, another prisoner accuses Saul of having “failed the living for the dead.” The line is not only a startling re- minder of how aggressive prisoners could be to one another, but a telling charac- terization of Saul, who, perhaps, sees no distinction. This might explain Saul’s risky behaviour and apparent flagrant disregard for his life.

Indicting Saul as “frustrating” might sound like heresy. To be fair, viewers of Holocaust cinema have become so accus- tomed to seeing Jews cast as victims, we easily forget that some prisoners were ac- tive managers of their own fate, however futile their attempts. Saul’s struggle un- folds against the planning and execution of the Auschwitz prisoner uprising.

Saul’s subjectivity is another source of frustration. The title is a misnomer, as Nemes never firmly establishes the titular child is Saul’s. Again, we rely solely on the word of Saul himself, who believes his son was born out of wedlock.

With a constant focus on Saul’s face and hypnotizing tracking shots, it’s not clear when a scene begins and another ends.

The entire film is a blur. It’s a matter of moments and minutes between the soli- tude of the sonderkommando’s cavernous dwellings and the woodland inferno where Jews are stripped naked and shot point blank into an amorphous pit.

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While many consider Schindler’s List to represent the essence of Holocaust cin- ema, Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, sets a new standard for its visceral tour of camp life, that is, death. Spielberg throws in everything and the kitchen sink. Nemes, however, makes a startlingly bold choice to relegate the Holocaust’s indelible imagery to the blurry background, following the weary face of Saul in shallow focus. While the close-up has long been associated with intimacy and familiarity, its use has never been so tense and austere. It’s no coincidence that Auslander, Saul’s surname, is German for “alien.”

The Holocaust needs documentary, although I have never doubted a fictional film’s potential to elicit a strong emotional effect. Even if its premise is contrived, Son of Saul is excruciatingly real.

Son of Saul opens in Toronto on Dec. 25 and in Vancouver and Montreal on Jan. 15.