Son of Saul
Sometimes the immensity of a film and the subject cows me in the face of the task of reviewing it. Son of Saul is just such a film. Full disclosure requires that I admit at the outset how I feel about this subject. I believe the Holocaust to be the seminal event of the 20th Century. Although many of us think we understand the Holocaust, we flatter ourselves thinking that we can know the reality of what happened. Only those very few remaining survivors know. The Holocaust was such an unprecedented and horrific event that extraordinary care is owed by any artist attempting to represent the truth of its evil. This is particularly important with film because for many, what they know of the Holocaust is what they have seen on the screen. There have been hundreds of books published, memoirs and investigations, but many of the most powerful images that we carry with us have come from the big screen. No work of art, however, whether on canvas or the big screen, can possibly convey the actual enormity, the violence, the cruelty, the terror, and the deaths of millions. And where are the bodies? Few victims have an identifiable grave among the mass burial sites and ovens. Just as the Nazis intended, Eastern Europe became a vast graveyard of Jews. In fact, all of Europe became nearly Judenfrei. The Nazi goal of eliminating European Jewry and its culture was largely successful.
One often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust is the industrialized scale and system of the killing. The Nazis moved quickly from murder at mass grave sites in the forest to enormous killing factories. The most infamous of these was Auschwitz, where every day 6000 people were gassed and burned while hundreds more died of disease and deliberate starvation. Overall, at least 1.1 million were murdered at Auschwitz alone, 90% of them Jews, 50% of those Hungarian.
So it is arguable if any work of art, film or otherwise, can represent the Holocaust, whole or in part. At best it allows you to peer through a small dark window. Art is inadequate for the greatest crime of the 20th Century. Yet the artist must try, we must watch, because the best of these films does succeed as testimony. To watch such a film is to honor the dead, in effect to offer Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) attesting that we have not forgotten. But gratuitous embellishment or the use of the Holocaust as a backdrop to an otherwise ordinary story constitutes in my mind a violation of the memory of those who died.
Among the many films about the Holocaust, few have achieved greatness. Of scores of documentaries, two stand out: The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls, 1969) and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985). In fact, many critics consider Shoah to be the greatest documentary ever filmed. Of the 150 or so narrative films about the Holocaust, survival tales predominate, in stark contrast to the reality. The following six are particularly accomplished: Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica,1970), Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle,1987), Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993), The Pianist (Polanski, 2002), Downfall (Hirschbiegel, 2005) and Ida (Pawlikowski, 2013). Each is powerful and enduring for its embodiment of truth.
Sometimes a young artist doing his early work produces something extraordinary. It's rare but it happens; think Maya Lin and her Vietnam Memorial. Now 38 year old Laszlo Nemes, directing his first full length film, has created one of those masterpieces in Son of Saul. Hungarian born Nemes grew up in Paris, son of a film director. Until now, he has only done a few short films. Part of Nemes' family was murdered at Auschwitz. Now, many years after reading rediscovered victims' journals, Nemes has written a screenplay about a man in Auschwitz. He shows us Saul Auslander (German for "outsider"), a Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommandos were Jews forced to entice people into the gas chambers ("shower first, then hot soup.. . Hang your clothes on the hooks so you can retrieve them."), and then clean out the gas chambers and dispose of the bodies. The Sonderkommandos got more food and another three or four months of life They were periodically killed by the Nazis because they knew too much. They were called the "bearers of secrets", and were forbidden to talk to the prisoners except to shepard them into the killing spaces. When selected by the Nazis they faced immediate death if they refused. In turn they were controlled by the Kapos, the Jews appointed to keep order in the camps. Not surprisingly, both groups were hated. Some kept journals, which they often buried, some of which were discovered after the camps were liberated. These formed the basis of Nemes' screenplay.
The film begins with a scrolled preface describing the Sonderkommandos. Then we see what seems like a treed area against a growing background of sounds: a train, panicked voices, dogs, shouted orders, and an orchestra. Everything is out of focus until the camera fixes on Saul's face as he urges the new arrivals along. From that moment the camera never leaves Saul, usually following close behind with his back filling most of the frame. His jacket has a large red x on the back to distinguish the Sonderkommandos. What he sees we also see, but quickly and mostly out of focus, such as people scurrying by, first clothed, then naked, then dead bodies. And a torrent of sounds including shouting, sobbing, screams and more. Many of these scenes could have only been filmed in hell, which is exactly what the Nemes wanted to convey to us. This was hell on earth without mercy, nothing but endless cruelty and suffering. The only release was death. Saul is stunningly played by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian born Judaic studies teacher from the Bronx who has never acted professionally before.
One day Saul sees a teenage boy who survived the gas. Everyone is astonished. A German doctor suffocates the boy and orders the camp doctor, another prisoner, to perform an autopsy to understand how he could have survived. Saul believes that this boy is his son and becomes determined to find a rabbi to say Kaddish and give him a burial. And the story continues for another day, in its relentless pace.
Although watching Son of Saul is shattering, it is clear we are witnessing a masterpiece. Few who see this film will ever think of the Holocaust in the same way. Nemes' film is powerful, intense and very affecting. The question remains: how could a young, inexperienced director make a first film like this? And how could Rohrig, an amateur actor, give such a performance? Although the Academy has never had a strong preference for dark films, this film must surely win the best foreign language film next month. It has already won the Grand Prix in Cannes and a Golden Globes (best foreign language film). Because his technique is so immersive, Son of Saul deserves to be seen on the big screen. Just opened at the Embarcadero and does not seem to be playing elsewhere in the Bay Area. Screening time 107 minutes.