Son of Saul
By Endre Farkas
The Hungarian Free Press
I just saw Son of Saul. It was a powerful, intense, painful experience. I am a child (not so young anymore) of Holocaust survivors. My mother was in Auschwitz and my father was in Mauthausen. I had heard many stories, especially from my father, about their days in hell. I have seen a number of films about the concentration camp experience, including Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and Life is Beautiful but I have never seen a film that made me feel the unimaginable horrors of this experience in such an intense way. I know quite a bit about the kinds of things that went on in the camps but none of these stories – and I heard plenty – have left me as gut-wrenched (fists clenched, glued to my seat, unable to leave the theatre) as this film.
Where to begin? With the constant claustrophobic close-ups of enclosing dark passages, winding in and out of other dark, narrower passages stuffed with silent men. This opening scene makes you feel that you are in a nightmare you desperately want to wake up from but can’t. It gives you a feeling of helplessness beyond words. These men are Sonderkommandos, the Jews who herded men and women into changing rooms and into the showers and then hauled out the corpses. The film’s attention to the details of this, the ruthless efficiency and thoroughness with which they rifle through the clothes, wash and disinfect the shower afterwards and haul the “pieces” to the crematorium, contributes to the overwhelming horror of this industrialised operation. These are the gruesome tasks that Saul Auslander (Géza Rohrig) and the other Sonderkommandos have to perform. And to carry out these indecencies, they are driven into numbness. This interior, dead-soul condition shows in Saul’s deadpan, dead eyed yet intense stare.
Because of the constant close-up technique, we do not really encounter the victims as individuals but rather just as parts of their nakedness. They are seen as and called “pieces” by the Germans in the film. It’s part of the dehumanization of guards and prisoners that contributed to the possibility of committing these atrocities. And because of the close-ups and seeing only bits and pieces of the camp and people, we do not see the faces of the German guards. This maybe for symbolic reasons, and definitely for dramatic effect because when we do, it is striking. The fine-featured, immaculate, superior-looking officer counters the dead, hollow faces of the beaten prisoners. They are monstrous by their handsomeness and civility.
Another thing that struck me is the incredible silence of the prisoners, which speaks volumes about the methods used to carry out such atrocities. This silence is imposed through constant, relentless, deafening shouts for silence and speed by the officers, guards and “kapos.” This constant barrage of threats and commands is the haunting score of this movie. A horrific effect is created through soundscape in the off-camera, gentle, comforting voices of guards and that of the officers telling prisoners to get undressed and remember their hook numbers so they can retrieve their clothing after the shower, to clean themselves thoroughly, so they can get their cake and tea and be assigned good jobs. “Arbeit Mach Frei made real.
The shower scene hit me hard. At Auschwitz, my mother and her sister were among those herded into the shower and were it not for a last-minute demand for slave workers, they would have been gassed. The scene in the film made it more real than all the times my mother recounted the story. That is the power of art.
The screams, the wailing, the pounding to get out and the desperate prayers coming from behind closed shower – off-camera and only heard – door are chilling. It isn’t chilling only because of what’s going on but because the audience knows what is about to happen to all the innocent human beings. And they can’t do anything about it. In a way, we, like the kapos, the Sonderkommandos, become complicit. We are confronted with a troubling mirror: What would/could we have done in their places? This film does not give them or the viewer an out.
And then the silence— deafening. Followed by the discovery of one barely alive, barely breathing, a single coughing child. Saul carries him to a table. The audience holds its collective breath. The wonder of it. A shot of Saul in the foreground facing the camera and the child in the background, lying on the table. What happens is something that will haunt me for a long time.
This is where and when Saul comes out of his walking-dead state; comes alive. The main story begins here. We don’t yet fully understand why this single event triggers his desperate search for a rabbi, but we are gripped and held by the force of this quest. It is a very personal one but it is also symbolic of a desperate desire to commit an act of human decency in this hell that makes Dante’s inferno seem like a playground. And perhaps this quest is also the road out of this hell. Hell, as represented by this camp, is the hell where the triumph of the will of the non-human can be seen in its most brutal nakedness. When we can be convinced by voices of hate, voices that can appeal to our dark side and stir our fear of the other, when we can be convinced to turn against one another because of religion, race, colour or sexual orientation, we end up in this hell. It costs us our humanity. We see the deadness, soullessness of this world in a visceral way that shocks and terrifies body, mind and heart.
I don’t know how much darker a film can get. On the other hand, shafts of light do shine through. The desire by some of the Sonderkommandos (who know their time too is nearly up) to not go quietly into that bad night and, against all odds, resist is one of them. Another such moment is when one prisoner helps Saul get across the river at the risk of his own life for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. The end is another shaft of light— though not in the schlocky Hollywood sense. (It does come close, but is saved by fine detail, editing and silence.)
Son of Saul is a gripping drama. It is not so much a story as much as a meditation on good and evil. It is about the crushing of the spirit, and how a cough of life can renew it.
Son of Saul is a beautiful work of art. I know that “beautiful” is a strange word to use to describe the subject and theme of this film. But it is the right word. The acting, the action, the directing and the editing, are all superb and beautiful in a brutal and powerful way. Director, Laszlo Nemes, has made the story new and fresh again, which is essential to making sure that we never forget. What we should never forget is how easily history repeats itself. We should never forget, and films like Son of Saul make sure that we don’t. The film is a powerful reminder that, art, which makes us human, is what does it.
Son of Saul engages and enriches and attacks our senses, intellect, imagination—
and humanity. What more can we ask for? Certainly, nothing less.