Depicting the grim realities of life at the frontline of an extermination camp, Son of Saul is an extraordinary debut from director László Nemes.
The Abyssby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In the last days of World War II, the extermination of Jewish prisoners speeded up in Auschwitz-Birkenau as the liberating armies advanced. The chaos of the concentration camp death factory is seen in Son of Saul through the eyes of one man, Saul, played by the Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig. He is one of the Sonderkommando, the group of prisoners given temporary privileges in return for the job of lying to the terrified new arrivals that they were about to have a shower, herding them into the gas chambers and cleaning up afterwards. The relentlessly moving handheld camera stays on Saul’s face all the time, focusing on him as he moves around the camp and its claustrophobic underbelly whilst shallow focus blurs the nightmare horrors around him. It’s a vision of hell, confused, violent, dark and dirty. Everyone is either about to die or already dead inside. The insistent soundtrack attacks us from all directions – industrial clanging, the Babel of languages, the screams from the locked gas chamber and the disembodied voices incessantly shouting orders.
A young boy survives the gas chamber, an event so unusual that the camp doctor is called – but instead of saving him, he finishes him off and calls for his body for dissection. This triggers the remnants of moral outrage in Saul. He’s determined that the boy must be given Jewish burial rites, for which he needs to find a rabbi to say kaddish. He says the boy is his son, though there are hints this is unlikely – it’s more a final response, a symbolic quest to find some kind of meaning and humanity amid the inhumanity.
The film doesn’t only start with a single sequence of the gas chambers, which might have been a climax, we also see the process being repeated without a break and the grisly mechanics of mopping up the bodies – “the pieces” – between each gassing, so that we get a sense of an industrial production line of corpses being created and having to be disposed of. Mountains of coal have to be shovelled into the furnaces and ash from the gas ovens builds up faster than it can be shovelled away by the nonstop, backbreaking labour of the Sonderkommando and their overseers.
Throughout it all, Saul persists in his dangerous, manic search, wandering all over the camp to find someone who will admit to being a rabbi as he carries the boy’s body with him, having stolen it from the doctor’s office. In doing so, his actions endanger his group who are planning rebellion and escape – their need becoming more urgent as they know their finite span as Sonderkommando is about to end. Time is running out for them and it will be their turn to die soon. As part of their plot, Saul has a strange meeting with a woman who may or may not have been his wife.
Géza Röhrig, a poet as well as an actor, makes an arresting film debut. His face, drained of emotion, conveys an intensity of meaning in close-up from start to finish. All other characters are peripheral. It’s an extraordinary film debut too for director and co-screenwriter László Nemes. His presentation of the death camp is immediate and unsentimental. Nothing is overtly explained. The tension builds to an abrupt and brutal conclusion. Beyond hope and fear, it’s a story where there are no miracles, no resolution and no-one survives. It’s unforgettable.
The film won the Grand Prix du Jury when it premiered at Cannes in 2015 and best foreign language film at the Oscars this year. How do you follow a first film like Son of Saul? Nemes’s next project is Sunset, due to start shooting next year, a coming-of-age drama set in 1910 Budapest, before the start of World War I.
Son Of Saul is released on 29th April 2016 in the UK