Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, has seen too much horror in the senseless deaths of men, women and children. Stripped of their dignity and unceremoniously gassed or shot to death, their naked corpses are piled like pieces of meat to be incinerated and their ashes shoveled into the river. He is part of a special group of Jews forced to help the Nazi camp commanders to exterminate their own people, knowing that they will also be subject to the same fate when their time comes.
Prisoner functionaries like Saul, who were chosen to help with the processing and exterminating of Jews on a daily basis, understandably must develop an unnatural detachment as a way of coping with guilt and preserving their sanity. Saul copes by shutting down those parts of his senses which are unable to process the insanity he is witness to. He doesn’t look at his victims any longer, he keeps his vision unfocused and he doesn’t hear their screams and confused cries for help.
Son of Saul is extremely disturbing to watch but also intensely thought-provoking. No one has ever brought us this close to the horrors of the Holocaust and specifically the experience of what it must have been like inside the death factories. Director Laszlo Nemes’s first feature film provocatively breaks this cinematic taboo to confront the Nazi atrocities in the Auschwitz death camp, but in so doing, he leaves much of it to the imagination.
We only see and hear the atrocities from Saul’s traumatized perspective—and only peripherally and out of focus—as Saul goes about his duties mundanely ushering in crowds of people who think they are being sanitized and will have a warm bowl of soup waiting for them after they shower. We hear their screams behind the locked shower doors, after which Saul and the other workers must quickly collect all the clothes for burning and remove the fresh corpses, cleaning and preparing the gas chamber for the next group of victims.
Shot as if the camera is attached to Saul’s body as he moves through the camp, Son of Saul is made to look like old film stock footage that may have been smuggled out of an actual death camp, making the experience so much more immersive and shocking. It’s as if we are catching a glimpse into highly secret and classified war crimes.
Son of Saul’s images of robotic humans in bleak, inhuman factory conditions slaving endlessly in cavernous furnaces harken back to the futuristic dystopian underground factory scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). There’s a similar sense of a detached visual experience free of any sentiment as we try to figure out what we are seeing and hearing.
I quickly discovered that opinions are sharply divided on this controversial film. For all the people who admired the film for its realistic and uniquely-focused take, disturbing as the subject matter is, there were an equal number of people who hated it and were strongly unimpressed by the seemingly unrealistic plot of a man trying to save a boy’s dead body from desecration while on a mission to find a Rabbi among the constant stream of Jewish arrivals to perform burial rights.
In a place like a Nazi death camp, where thousands were being gassed, shot and burned every day, this idea seemed too improbable to many viewers. But others saw it as more symbolic than realistic; a man consumed with guilt preserving one sacred act he feels is his last and only chance on Earth of salvation for the sins he’s committed.
by John Schwab