Every now and then, a film comes along that separates itself from the canon, and has an ability to encapsulate viewers in a different world and a unique experience. Last year, Son Of Saul cracked the mould, broke free from the conventions of the subject and opened up a conversation – what’s the ‘right’ way to depict the true horror of the holocaust?
Laszlo Nemes, the first-time feature director, brings the story of Saul Auslander to the screen. Saul is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners who work in the Auschwitz camp. Their job is to help undress and usher unfathomably large numbers of Jews into the gas chambers, to collect their clothing and valuables as the horrifying cries of distress unfold behind the locked doors, and to tirelessly scrub the floors and clear out the bodies of the deceased. Their payment is a short extension on their lives, before they will meet the same end themselves. One day, a young boy lies barely conscious amongst the lifeless corpses in the chamber, and Saul intently watches as he is quickly suffocated by the camp doctor. Saul then devotes himself to the task of finding a rabbi to provide the boy, who he proclaims as his son, with a Jewish burial. This is a task he tries desperately to carry out amongst determined whispers of his fellow prisoners during a frantically planned uprising.
We’ve seen a lot of holocaust movies over the decades, with notable ones including Schindler’s List (1993), Kapo (1960), The Pianist (2002), Life Is Beautiful (1997), The Wall (1983), Sophie’s Choice (1982) and many, many more. One thing is for sure, these movies are, more often than not, an unflinching observance of events. They often portray shocking, graphic violence and moments of desperately harrowing tragedy; a blitz on our senses and emotions as viewers. Films like these shock the audience into considering the truths of the holocaust, but there’s always a lurking feeling that the subject is being exploited for cinema. Events, people and moments are being dressed up, palpable for mass consumption.
Son Of Saul is focussing on the Sonderkommando, the prominence and organisation of the planned rebellion against the Nazis, which is a topic also used as a central drive in plot the plot of The Grey Zone. Both movies tackle this in very different ways. Notably, The Grey Zone‘s cast is a pretty star studded one, with Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and David Arquette amongst other big names. For Son Of Saul, Laszlo Nemes cast Gezha Rohrig as the title character, an actor previously unseen in feature films. That’s a technique that really allowed me to become immersed in the story and the character without the intrusion of my preconception of him as an actor. Although it’s Geza Rohrig’s first time in a feature film, his performance is an extremely poignant one. Because the script is minimal, and for the most part reduced to hushed whispers and the occasional frustrated exclamation within the Sonderkommando, Rohrig has to convey every emotion through his expressions. What’s interesting is that his expression doesn’t actually change much, whilst we can observe all the emotions in the world as the camera lingers in a sturdy frame on his face. It’s as if his features are locked in an infinite moment of pain, distress and resolve, with his eyes widened and glazed, his brow furrowed and his jaw clenched.
For the most part of the film, we get a tunnel-vision-like view of what Saul is seeing from over his shoulder. His every action has a purpose, like a machine that has been programmed. The abhorrent obscenities that he bears witness to almost every moment of every day are visible in the corners of the frame as he carries out his tasks. Lifeless, naked bodies scatter the edges of Saul’s vision, out of focus as they are dragged away. He walks through the ghetto areas of the camp, past hushed whispers of the rebellion, screams of distress and the sound of bullets meeting flesh, but he appears outwardly unaffected. Son Of Saul understands that the suggestion of such savagery is more effective on our emotions than outright showing us. An obstructed glimpse of humanity at one of its most tragic moments, and our imagination peaks. It is almost as if the phrase “I can’t imagine what that experience would be like” is embodied. Traditionally, prevailing holocaust movies have used an opposing technique, as the camera unflinchingly observes an especially tragic, shocking or graphic moment. In these movies, it’s as if we are being held with our heads forcibly turned towards the screen and our eyes forcibly opened to watch something terrible unfold. That in itself can really have a lasting effect on the viewer of the film, and on their thoughts and conversations about the holocaust.
The main thing that I was considering during and after Son Of Saul, was how my experience and feelings differed from those when I watched Schindler’s List and The Pianist, for example. Both of those movies are fantastic, because they are conventionally and cinematically great movies with moving performances and unforgettable narratives. They did leave me exhausted and with a lasting feeling of sadness and despair. But I have to say, there’s an element of guilt that comes with this experience. We’re watching something that we call a great movie, a portrayal of events, that no matter how graphic it is in its portrayal, doesn’t even come within a million miles of closeness to the experience itself. I always wonder how a holocaust survivor would perceive high grossing box office successes like Schindler’s List and The Pianist. Of course the filmmakers aren’t trying to recreate the events exactly how they were, but they are trying to create something that is true to the heart of the history and future of this event, something that is at least loyal to the nature of it. Can any highly grossing, star studded Hollywood movie truly do that? I’m not sure. However, it can create a conversation about it, and propel thoughts on the truths surrounding the tragedy.
After Son Of Saul, I was exhausted, and I did have a lasting feeling of sadness and despair like with the other movies. But something more was lingering. I didn’t feel that Son Of Saul is exploiting the holocaust as a historical event. I did feel like I was being shown an unflinching version of events, but it was my choice of whether or not I wanted to allow my imagination to delve further. I wasn’t exhausted because I’d witnessed explicitly graphic moment after graphic moment, I was exhausted because I’d experienced something that affected my senses in lots of different ways. Keeping up with Saul as he journeyed tirelessly without a moment of stillness, I was increasingly desperate for him to find the rabbi to bury the boy. Because Saul physically never gets a break, neither do we. There’s no shortcuts; each take is excruciatingly long, and this is seriously subconsciously tiring.
The Son Of Saul narrative is really quite simple yet complex. You can summarise the it in a sentence, but if you peel back the top layer there’s a whole other infinitely deepening, dark well of connotations. It’s about how tightly one might grasp onto morsels of humanity during such an inhumane episode that will forever besmirch the face of history. A lot of discussion surrounds whether or not the boy in the story is actually Saul’s son, and that’s a big thing in what the narrative means, for me. Personally, I don’t think the boy is Saul’s biological son. But as Saul fights so strongly for the boy’s spiritual wellbeing, he is representing the oneness of us as humans. How could one person inflict such pain on other, or how could such an unthinkable number of the human race be wiped out, when one man can claim the body of a boy as his son in the midst of it all, and risk his life time and time again to ensure something spiritual. I could imagine that in such distress, you would strive to find something to hold on to and something to accomplish, and that could be the definition of being human.
What’s the right way to depict the true horror of the holocaust? That can’t be done, it’s impossible. Son Of Saul isn’t trying to do that, but it is trying to depict the true nature of human beings. Although the holocaust is a dominating premise in the story, really it is just a setting. The focus isn’t on the striking expression of physical tragedies, that’s just something that takes place. Because we’re following Saul, we can turn away and apply all our focus and desperations to his task of finding a rabbi, as he is doing. In my mind, that’s why it has such a different effect than the traditionally popular holocaust movies that came before.
I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this movie, and how you think it compares to other prevailing holocaust movies. Do you agree? What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it?
Great writing here, FC. I have this film on my wish list, and have read some excellent reviews of it, not least your own. I had always cited ‘The Grey Zone’ as perhaps the most realistic and disturbing film about these events up to now. I do agree that the familiarity of the cast took quite a lot away from it, though I still found it very powerful.
I think it is important to continue to re-visit this terrible time in history. In the same way as films about Slavery are still being made, the Holocaust should not be consigned to history, and left to become stagnant. When I get round to buying and watching ‘Son of Saul’, I hope that I find it as moving as you obviously did.
Best wishes, Pete.
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Thanks for reading Pete, and for your compliments. You’re very right, we need to keep seeing movies about the holocaust, and a variety of styles of movie on the subject. I think any movie that opens a conversation about something is important.
I’d be very interested to read your thoughts when you do watch it. Fantastic, a very meaningful cinematic experience, but not one I think I’d watch more than once. Hmm, maybe I would. See what you think!
I have only watched The Grey Zone once, although I have the DVD. The same goes for Life is Beautiful (1997). However, I did watch both Schindler’s List and The Pianist more than once, so maybe that says something about the cinematic feel, as opposed to the claustrophobic and unsettling nature of the others.
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This is an excellent review and I concur with all your observations. This is the only film I have ever awarded five out five; my review states: “In terms of cinematography, storytelling and emotional impact, this film is a modern masterpiece. But it is hardly entertainment. It leaves you nowhere to hide, shows no mercy, spares no detail..”
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Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for your compliments! I checked out your review – fantastic! I think we’re very much in agreement. “It is hardly entertainment” – I think that sums it up!
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This is an amazing experience in the way in which it thrusts the viewer into the atrocities. I was blown away by its power.
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Agreed. Thank you for reading!
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