Movie Review: Son of Saul (2015)
“Son of Saul” is a relentless, exhausting film that never strays five feet from its protagonist for most of its 107-minute runtime. The camera stays on the back of the head or on the intense, vacant face of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. It’s his job to get the arrivals ready for the showers. We see this happening, often blurred, in his peripheral vision. It’s business as usual for the Sonderkommando, who know the end game, yet horror upon horror for the new arrivals, who don’t; who become further dehumanized with every step. They’re herded, stripped, packed in, gassed; their dead bodies dragged and burned, their ashes shoveled into a nearby pond.
One assumes the tight camera shots, the inability to see no further than five feet around us, is a kind of protective device for Saul: how he survives and stays sane. One also expects the camera to open up as his worldview expands; as he finds something to live for.
It does and doesn’t. Because he does and doesn’t.
What he finds is his son, the title character, who is still breathing after being gassed in the showers, making him of interest to Nazi doctors, who then suffocate the boy and order an autopsy. Saul watches all of this, transfixed. His face becomes less vacant, more intense. Then he takes over the task of transporting the body. For a moment, one wonders if the boy is still alive and Saul is trying to save him. The boy isn’t but Saul is still trying to save him. Amid the dehumanization, Saul wants a human moment. He wants a Jewish burial: a rabbi, the kaddish, and a grave. In a world where life has no meaning, he wants one death to have meaning, so he keeps risking everything—stepping outside the rigid procedures of the Sonderkommando—to make it so, even as his fellows, their time short-lived, plot an escape. He lets burial get in the way of escape.
The longer this goes on, the more insane—even selfish—it seems. “You failed the living for the dead,” he's told afterwards.
It also feels like the purest form of sanity. And he almost makes it happen. He finds a rabbi amid the arrivals and hides him. He cuts his beard—the way leering Nazis did in posed photographs in the ’30s and ’40s. He actually makes it outside the camp with the body and the rabbi, and he’s pawing at the dirt, and the rabbi begins the kaddish: “Blessed and sanctified be God’s...” he says, but can’t go on. The kaddish is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which the rabbi can no longer do. It’s a prayer in times of mourning but not in times of insanity. This world is insane. As is Saul.
Because the boy isn’t his son. Saul doesn’t have a son. So what is he doing? What is the meaning of his machinations throughout the film?
I think we get a glimpse of it in the end. After Saul loses the body in the rapids and follows the others to a farmhouse to rest before continuing on, he spies, in the doorway, a small boy. Not Jewish. A fat, blonde, Polish kid. The enemy, really. And Saul smiles at him. Beatifically. The camera holds on Saul’s face, with something like glory shining in his eyes. Because the kid is the future in a world that seems to have none? Because all kids are sons of Saul now? Or is it because his appearance signifies Saul’s impending death, which he welcomes? It’s the last shot we see of him before German troops surround the farmhouse and begin the offscreen slaughter.
Directed by László Nemes, written by Nemes and Clara Royer, “Son of Saul” is a unique Holocaust film for raising questions rather than answering them. It's also exhausting. Everyone should see it but I doubt I'll see it again.