If a hell exists, I can’t imagine it being too dissimilar from László Nemes’ depiction of the Holocaust in the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. An impressive debut feature from Nemes, who co-writes as well as directs, the Hungarian film is one of the most terrifyingly real portrayals of the Holocaust to have ever been brought to the screen.
Our guide through the atrocities is Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is forced to work at the death camp up until the Nazis decide to execute him and his unit. It is through his eyes that we see the horrors of Hitler’s final solution, the camera never straying far from over his shoulder. The result is something that admirably attempts to put you right in the middle of a death camp in 1944, and although no film will ever truly capture the genocide, this comes closer than most.
When we first meet Saul, he is herding a group of faceless prisoners to a gas chamber. In what is one of many tracking shots, we witness the brutal extermination of men, women and children, all in the peripheral of Saul’s vision. As he and his fellow prisoners begin to clean up, however, there is one survivor of the chamber; a young boy who shortly has the last remnants of his life suffocated out of him by a Nazi doctor.
Saul believes the dead boy to be his son and goes to extreme lengths, risking the lives of his and others, to find a rabbi to perform a proper burial. The obsessive search raises intriguing questions about Saul’s state of mind, especially when his fellow Sonderkommandos are on the verge of an escape attempt. Is Saul looking for some kind of moral justice at a time where the most terrible crimes against humanity were taking place, or has he simply given up on survival altogether?
A conversation he has with another prisoner in which they tell him “We’re going to die because of you” and to which he replies “We’re already dead” implies the latter. Through Géza Röhrig’s astounding central performance, one in which years worth of pain and misery are written into every one of his facial features, there’s a real sense that Saul has come to accept death and, if anything, would welcome it with open arms.
Yet, he still has one last thing that he needs to do, something which feels like a final redemptive act for Saul; it’s a mission which takes him and us through the nightmare of Auschwitz. What’s particularly clever in the way in which László Nemes tells the story, is that it never tries to overtly shock its audience with extreme sequences of violence. As we see events play out through the eyes of Saul, a lot of the action is out of focus and often difficult to make out in any great detail. Instead, Nemes focuses on creating a hellish atmosphere that is full of fire, smoke, ash, gunshots, chaos, and the haunting screams of countless men, women and children.
Whereas other films would emphasis moments of violence, the fact that Son of Saul avoids it, makes it all the more frightening. We may not see the full extent of the horror, but the endless conveyor belt of murder and extermination is nevertheless apparent – especially in the sequences set within the underground gas chambers, which feel uncomfortably oppressive. In this sense, Son of Saul is an altogether sensitive and expressionist piece of cinema.
Its brilliant technical achievements combined with Röhris’s phenomenal central performance – his eyes burn with so much intensity – are just two of many reasons to seek the film out. But, more than anything, Son of Saul is essential, poetic film and portrays the holocaust quite unlike anything else seen in fiction-film to date. I can understand why some would think it inappropriate or in poor taste to make a film of its kind, but as philosopher, poet and novelist George Santayana once said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”. Those words are written in stone at Auschwitz and perfectly surmise why Son of Saul deserves your attention.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com