A man’s face can say more than a thousand words, music, background sounds, and action all put together. Géza Röhrig is Saul Ausländer in László Nemes’ latest film Son of Saul (original title Saul fia). It’s a film that suffocates you through every frame, every beat, as you follow Saul and his unifocal determination to give his son’s corpse a decent burial. Through its hundred-ish minute runtime, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes gives us a chilling reminder that sometimes, when confronted with a choice between life and death, one must choose the latter.
The protagonist Saul is part of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, a group of Jewish men who help the Germans gas and bury people at the camp. With brilliant tight framing of the protagonist and lots of off-frame sounds (German officers shouting out ‘work’ ‘burn’ ‘push’ and the like), Nemes creates the most eerie, chilling ambiance, where slight and blurred glimpses of corpses and naked bodies are enough to send a chill down the spine. It’s one of the most vivid non-obvious portrayals of the ghastly nature of any crime of this magnitude.
Saul’s chase and tight frame take up almost 80% of the film, but never once does it stop pricking at the core of a deep wound of inhumanity that perhaps inhabits all of us.
The Holocaust continues to haunt our memories and while films dealing with the travesty have been made for decades, Son of Saul had two very different aspects to it that make it stand apart. Surely, the Holocaust backdrop is very visible and very ingrained in the narrative, but the heart of the film is the tormenting paradigm of how someone makes a choice between the living and the dead.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, Saul comes across a young boy, who half-survives the gas chamber. He helplessly watches as a doctor suffocates the remaining life out of the boy and orders an autopsy. Saul then realizes that the boy is his own and convinces the (Hungarian) doctor tasked with the autopsy to return the body to him. From here on begins Saul’s search through the sea of the dead and the dying for a rabbi who will give his son a proper burial.
Pulled in different directions by some of the plotting Sonderkommando mutineers and the ‘work’ of clearing the corpses for the Germans, in the midst of constant death, the only thing Saul cares about is burying his dead son. The omnipresence of his own finality doesn’t touch him or alter his stare. It’s as if the stare is a peek into the future when he will find a rabbi and sit by his dead son and give him the respect of his last rites.
The second fascinating part of the film is the power of faith and ingrained traditions that can’t be extracted from us, no matter what. A fellow Sonderkommando tells Saul that he chooses to honour the dead when others around him are clinging to the last breath of life. It struck me how powerful faith and tradition and perhaps the morality of doing the right thing is. It trumps everything we know and hold dear, and even our own desperate need for self-preservation.
This question is not new – it’s not something that has never been asked. Yet surrounded by violence and death and not sure of his own survival, Saul’s constant yearning, expressed pointedly through his stern, determined stare throughout the film, tells the story of how in all the wrong that surrounds him, humanity is all we seek. And for Saul, the horrors of mass murder don’t allow him that reprieve among the living, so he seeks it in death.
The film won the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes and has been nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards.
Son of Saul is now playing in cinemas.