Son of Saul

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 18, 2015
Géza Röhrig stars in 'Son of Saul'
Géza Röhrig stars in 'Son of Saul'  

One of lesser-know facets of the horror that was the Nazi death machine was the use of "Sonderkommandos" -- "special units" -- at the concentration camps. These were units comprised of inmates who, upon arrival, were selected to act as laborers in the grisly business of herding the living and then, after incoming victims were gassed in fake shower facilities, carting away the dead.

Director and co-writer László Nemes' "Son of Saul" ("Saul fia") concerns one such laborer, a Hungarian Jew named Saul (Géza Röhrig) who, while tending his duties at the notorious Auschwitz (a camp located in Nazi-occupied Poland) in October of 1944, believes -- or at least eventually claims -- that one of the victims he's encountered is his son.

Both father and putative son are introduced in remarkable ways. As the film begins, we're unable to see anything: The entire image is out of focus, and it's only just possible to discern a pair of figures digging in a pit. Then a call sounds and a number of prisoners begin to move toward the camera; one of them resolves into Saul, stepping into the field of focus and then dominating our field of view.

The camera takes a long, unbroken "ghost ride" practically on Saul's shoulder. He's a handsome man, but dead-eyed; keeping his own gaze on the ground, reflexively deferring to the brusque Nazi officers he encounters, Saul moves quickly to establish himself before a crowd of new arrivals, then leads them toward the showers. He and the other Sonderkommandos are easy to pick out: They have red Xs painted on their backs.

But there's more than one way in which these imprisoned workers are marked men. Sonderkommandos -- we learn thanks to introductory text -- were kept around for a few months before they, too, were executed. Saul and his cadre are getting close to their own appointed time, and the men of Saul's unit, hearing rumors about their impending execution, have come up with a plan to bomb the camp and fight back against their Nazi captors. Saul is part of the plan, which is headed up by a fellow Hungarian Jew named Abraham (Levente Molnár) and a captured Russian soldier. But upon seeing the child he takes to be his son -- the boy is, briefly, still living; the first time the camera cuts away from Saul it's to show him, naked and gasping for breath -- Saul's priorities change and he becomes obsessed with getting a rabbi to help him perform a religiously correct burial.

This is no small task, given that another is the Jewish trustees, a doctor, is ordered to perform an autopsy on the child. Between his efforts to secure the body and identify a willing rabbi (first among his own Sonderkommando unit and then from a fresh influx of victims), Saul becomes alienated even from his own kind. It feels textually correct, then, that when he's asked for his identity, Saul reveals his surname to be "Auslander" -- German for "foreigner."

Leo Tolstoy proposed in a famous book about war (and peace) that history is the result of the sum total of human action. That seems true enough, but history also contains defiant counter-currents that tug insistently in other directions from the prevailing tide. Watching Saul slip around the edges and through the cracks of the camp's ghastly activities is a revelation -- and a haunting one -- as, in the pursuit of his lonely quest, he runs up against what others (Nazis, rebels) are doing.

The film's visual style only rarely opens up, and when it does it shows us glimpses of unrelenting horror: Piles of corpses, heaps of ash, leaping flames, white smoke and encroaching darkness that blot everything out. As if in compensation, the film's sound design places dialogue from unseen speakers all around us, along with crashes and clanging and other sound effects, oftentimes exaggerated in volume and clarity. It's an effect that was used in another film this year, the Oren Moverman-directed "Time Out of Mind," in which Richard Gere plays a similarly damaged man -- a man who keeps his visual field narrow, and his eyes to the ground, only for the world's noises to press in upon him that much more fiercely.

There actually was a revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz in October of 1944; historically, and narratively, it's not hard to anticipate the outcome. But the film doesn't land as one might expect it to. In a final scene that roughly bookends the first one, Nemes (and Saul with him) offers a hopeful smile at the future -- an epoch that, like the past, must rely on human choices. Will we one day learn to exercise our considerable human talents for more humane, and less destructive, ends?

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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