Just been watching…(32)

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.


42 thoughts on “Just been watching…(32)

  1. There can not be enough films about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, there are always enough idiots, who think that the time was great. I could puke about so much stupidity. Please excuse my choice of words!

    A few weeks ago I saw on Netflix “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, which I found also very violently!

    There are always moments when I am ashamed to be German!

    We must never forget what happened then!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like an eye-opening movie that doesn’t shy away from the horror of The Holocaust. And neither should it because it was an utterly disturbing and startling event that we should never forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hope you’re feeling better, Pete. I do agree with you that forgetting certain things or pulling a blanket over them can have nefarious effects and we must not forget what has been done in the name of… well, different things, really. I have heard about this film but haven’t watched it yet. I must. Thanks so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Apart from “Schindler’s List” (I’ve seen the film, and I’ve also read the book in French translation), I don’t think I’ve seen any Holocaust films. So this would definitely be worth checking out. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait until my DVD drive can be cleaned, repaired, or replaced.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m still plugging away at a snail’s pace on the first of two detective novels, but the end of Chapter 6 (out of 7) is within sight now. I also just finished rereading “Pope on the Dole” for the third time. I still get a kick out of it. Additionally, I’m reading the second book (out of five) in Philip José Farmer’s “Riverworld” series (in French translation). So I’m busy, but in a fun way!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree it’s critical that we remember (and learn from) history, the good, the bad and the ugly. I have read many books on the Holocaust but I can’t bear to see it graphically displayed in a movie. Too disturbing. But it’s so important that we never forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I look forward to watching it, it sounds like a similar plot (if there could be such a thing) as the grey zone.
    Its an interesting discussion in the comments, I have mixed feelings myself, although having visited the camps in Poland I have to say that more importance should be put on teaching the history in schools, and if films like this could be used then they should. I would guess they would have more impact on a younger audience that some droll documentary. Lets face it the ratings system is little followed nowadays, so showing an 18 to a group of 14 years olds should be mandatory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Eddy. It is more Grey Zone in feel, compared to other films on the subject. But the foreign language, unknown actors, and different camera techniques make it feel more unsettling, in some ways.
      I agree about the schools, as it would appear that History as a subject is sadly lacking in some areas.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  7. I partially agree with exoticnita, although not with the ‘forgetting’ part, the holocaust does need to be remembered. But the people who are still mindful to annihilate other races won’t bother seeing these kinds of movies, and this movie will be too harrowing to be shown in any school rooms. It won’t make a difference, as others before it have not. I have seen the newsreels of the time, read the history books, and that’s enough harrowing for me. First Night Design says it is vital that these documentaries continue to be made, but I don’t agree, there’s a plethora of holocaust documentaries and movies and books and TV series already. Any more smacks of cashing in on the misery of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for adding your thoughts to this discussion, FR. I agree that those prepared to do such things are unlikely to watch any films, or feel any guilt. However, I do hope that new generations will continue to be reminded, so that they might be less likely to support, or to vote for, extremism of any kind.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s interesting that these discussions about how we honour and remember the dead, and the past they represent, are the main topic of this powerful film. Is Saul’s obsession with a proper burial for his son madness in the face of ongoing brutality or is his memorialisation essential for religious or other reasons?

    Thanks for a great, thought-provoking review.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, I completely agree, we need to continue making Holocaust films. As I watch the local news reports acts of senseless bigotry in the form of violence and property destruction committed in the name of race, nationalism, or religion I am amazed that there are that many people who still harbor notions of superiority and entitlement over others. Holocaust films put faces on victims of the senseless bigotry and violence from the past. Holocaust films make those victims human. People who are bigoted and commit acts of violence against others in identifiable groups are not able to put human faces on their victims. Would that we could put faces on the hate perpetrator’s victims for the perpetrators as easily. Perhaps we should make films of contemporary hate crimes against humanity as well.
    Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Totally disagreed..

    Why keep on remembering and reminding people of just tragic and horrific events..

    I think it’s best forgotten and put to rest..
    and allow our new and young generation to learn it in history class..
    We don’t need to carry the burden of that era around which us..
    it’s much too depressing and horrifying..

    Our ancestors have paid enough and lives through enough.
    And hurt enough.. for us all..

    So don’t dredge up that kind of past.. leave it where it’s at..

    And if you enjoy 😊 living it over and over again.. do it in private.. and don’t extend it to the minds of our younger generation…
    They have enough tragedy to deal with as is..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Nita. I am interested in your take on this. Obviously, we will continue to have differing opinions. Learning (or not learning) from history is something we experience, whether we like it or not. The Crusades in the 11th century have left us with the legacy of many of today’s problems. Bad judgement in the Balkans after WW2 resulted in the carnage of the recent wars in former Yugoslavia.
      Man’s capacity for genocide appears to be still around, and just needs a spark to ignite it. Reminders of the horrors that brings are still important, to my mind.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Thank, Nita. We don’t have to agree. Blogging is as much about debate and opinion as anything else. We are all entitled to our views on a subject. I am always happy to receive your comments. Even if they are of the opposite view, they are most welcome.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

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