Review: Son of Saul
Published February 23, 2016
Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes, tells a story of one man’s search for meaning in a world deprived of humanity. The film, set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, follows one prisoner’s quest for meaning after seeing the death of a boy he takes to be his long-lost son. The film follows two days in the life of Saul Ausländer, played by Géza Röhrig, a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando unit, who searches for a rabbi to bury the boy and bring him dignity in death.
Nemes immerses the viewer in the frightening daily life of a member of the Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando were a group of Jewish people chosen by the Nazis to carry out the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” primarily by helping to dispose of the bodies of the victims of Nazi cruelty. The Sonderkommandos had some level of superiority over the other prisoners in the camps and, as long as they did as they were told, would remain alive. However, after a short period of time, the Nazis would enlist new members of the Sonderkommando and kill the old ones. This sense of time and urgency presses upon the film’s story, adding an element of thrill and padding the emotive yet highly introspective plot.
The film favours mostly point-of-view and over-the-shoulder shots, so the audience sees everything Saul sees, hears everything he hears, and breathes everything he breathes. This framing provides a unique and personal perspective on what is going on in the camp and gives a greater understanding of the daily torment and suffering that each victim of Nazi cruelty endured every day.
As members of the audience, we are given Ausländer’s personal truth. We see everything in his peripheral vision but never anything head-on. This is the way Ausländer survives in the death camp; by existing only at the edges of the truth. He lives a day-to-day life with no greater purpose and no reason to continue on, but once he sees the boy who survived the gas chamber, only to be suffocated by the camp doctor, he makes it his mission to bring dignity to the boy he takes for his son. Ausländer’s life changes with this self-imposed purpose. He no longer exists on the periphery. The lack of camera focus throughout the film reflects the lack of meaning in Saul’s life. It is only when he takes this mission upon himself that he, along with the camera, become focused and search for clarity and meaning. Ausländer does not exist on his own. The very title of the film brings Ausländer to life only in relation to this dead son. Without the son, there is no Saul.
In an interview about the film, Nemes says that “we wanted to make a visceral kind of film.” The movie was filmed in Hungary, and by altering pre-existing structures instead of constructing their own, “we didn’t have the impression of being on a movie set. There was a strange sense of being there.”
The Sonderkommando played a controversial role in the death camps, but Nemes believes firmly in their innocence. By creating this film, he “wanted to give back dignity to the dead and the dying,” and this is exactly what Son of Saul stands for. Through our immersion in one man’s search for redemption in the face of utter despair, we see existing aspects of humanity in a cruel and inhumane world. Son of Saul presents a struggle for survival, but on a deeper level, it demands an answer to and a struggle for unanswerable questions. Why fight to survive if the ultimate outcome is death? Why strive for honour in a world deprived of all dignity? Why hold on to tradition when the present day brings enough horror to cause even the most devout of men to reject their god? Is there purpose? Can there be purpose?
Perhaps most important to Son of Saul is its ability to tell a novel and unexpected kind of history. Unlike past Holocaust narratives that draw out emotion through romantic or tragic plot lines, Nemes’s film is highly affective on a sensorial level. The feeling of closeness to Saul contributes to the emotional impact of the film, transforming the physical space of the story into a space that forces the viewer to feel what Saul feels, and understand not so much the events of the past, but the effects of the past as they were felt contemporarily. This film has real power. It has received the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, The New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film, the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It is an important film that takes the audience on an emotional journey and immerses us in a part of history that must never be forgotten.