Son of Saul (2015)
(Hungarian, German, and Russian languages. English subtitles.)
After ‘Schindler’s List’, The Grey Zone’, and lots more, it may seem to many that there have been enough films made about the Holocaust. After all, even the most well-made and well-intentioned film about this subject can ultimately only serve to depress the viewer, reminding us of those awful events and the inhuman treatment of the prisoners. However, I would argue that they need to continue to be made, to carry on bringing these tragic stories to new audiences; lest the memory of these people and places becomes something ‘historical’, and future generations lose interest in what happened.
‘Son of Saul’ won the Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. I asked for a DVD of this for my birthday, and decided to watch it this morning, as I was sitting in with a sore throat and heavy cold.
The film goes straight into action, with no lead-up, or back story. We have no idea where these men come from, or how they got there. They are part of a ‘Sonderkommando’, a special unit of stronger prisoners who are tasked with assisting in the industrial process of killing hundreds of people at a time. They are a mixed bunch; with Jews, non-Jews, captured Russian soldiers, and others. Ruled over by the ‘Kapos’, other prisoners promoted into supervisory roles who are harsh in their treatment of the men in their charge. The film starts with familiar events. Terrified people are herded into the gas chambers, told that they are going for a shower, and will be given soup afterwards. The men of the Sonderkommando stack their clothes and belongings, as they listen to the screams of those inside. They then go into the chamber to retrieve the bodies, and to wash down the area ready for the next arrivals.
Where this film differs from all the others, is that it uses a non-widescreen format, something like the old TV ratios. Then the camera is used at very close range, rarely more than a few inches from the face of Saul and others, or following close behind as they move. This means that faces literally fill the screen, and the viewer is swept up in the intimacy of detail, the close contact, and the claustrophobic feel that is present throughout. Clever use of differential focus also renders the backgrounds blurred and indistinct. We can see many bodies are there, or perhaps be aware of hundreds of other prisoners, but the focus remains on Saul, making us feel as if we are actually there, seeing what he sees, in the same way.
This is not to say that the film is not harrowing, it is never anything but. However, it does give a different insight to life in those camps. The prisoners have few friends, and there are language difficulties too. The non-Jewish prisoners and Russians have little respect for the Jews, often seeming to detest them in the same way as the Germans do. Everything is about survival, staying alive for one more day. This is particularly relevant for the members of the Sonderkommando. They are all-too aware that their days are numbered, and know that the Germans will eventually kill them too, and replace them with a new group of workers. This spurs on one group to plan a break-out, and Saul is reluctantly drawn into their plans.
In the middle of all this madness, this vision of Hell on Earth, Saul becomes fixated on the death of one young boy. He determines to ensure that he has a proper religious burial, and embarks on a one-man quest to find a Rabbi in the camp, someone who can say the correct prayers for the boy. He hides the body, and tells others that it is his son. Although some are sympathetic, they are aware that he is putting all their lives at risk with this action, and he eventually has to act alone.
As often happens with foreign films, not knowing any of the cast just increases the feeling of authenticity. This film feels totally believable at all times, and the viewer is drawn into Saul’s obsession along with him. Strong performances are delivered by everyone, even in the smallest roles, and the outcome is to leave you feeling drained after watching it all the way to the end.
It is no spoiler to say that things do not end well for anyone involved. These are events of record, and it would be unrealistic to provide a happy ending where none existed. If you think you can stand it, this powerful film is highly recommended.