Son of Saul
Director: László Nemes / Screenplay: László Nemes & Clara Royer / Editing: Matthieu Taponier / DP: Mátyás Erdély / Score: László Melis
Cast: Géza Röhrig / Levente Molnár / Urs Rechn / Sándor Zsótér / Marcin Czarnik / Uwe Lauer / Juli Jakab
Memories Are Made of This…
I will plunge into most reviews bright-eyed and chipper for the journey ahead. Some delight, others disappoint, but rare is the film that actually puts me off watching it. Yet make no mistake: they’re out there, alright. Lurking in my Box of Shame like so many cello-wrapped bear-traps out to snare the unwary. Of course, that begs the obvious question: ‘Why buy them in the first place?’ to which the answer is always the same: how can I ever hope to appreciate and savour the gold, if that’s all I ever get to watch?
Make no mistake however, with Son of Saul’s inclusion into this category. It’s not there because it’s a bad film. On the contrary: it’s an amazing film about bad things…
I haven’t watched it until now, because I’m a coward. Because there were always other things to watch. Amidst the (ongoing) Coronavirus Pandemic, I’ve lacked the will to subject myself to misery. Yet times change and the wheel turns. So I got up this morning and watched Son of Saul. And came away feeling relief.
Relief that it was all I thought – and hoped – it might be. Relief, that it wasn’t what it might’ve been. Relief, that in Laszlo Nemes, contemporary cinema has – at last – found a new champion for tackling our darkest impulses from an authentic angle.
For above anything else I’m going to tell you about the film, Dear Reader, know this: it might very well be the first movie about the Nazi concentration camps to show nothing of the horror in-detail. Here in the UK, it received a ‘12’ Certificate for its 2015 release with the only note from the BBFC citing ‘Strong threat’. They weren’t wrong, as ‘Strong threat’ is about all you could accuse ‘Saul of portraying. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Let’s start with Director Nemes, who turns-out to be a character worth understanding. A Hungarian, who’s family moved to Paris when he was a boy, he tried – unsuccessfully – to get into film school before trying his luck in New York. When that didn’t work-out, he moved back to Budapest, where he was able to connect with the city’s own film-makers. Only by making those fresh connections, could the seeds of the idea then germinate. It’s a sequence of chance events that has one questioning whether a passion-project such as this, might never have been made, had Nemes graduated from film school as-planned; surely their adherence to form & structure would’ve smothered the project before it drew breath. As it is, Nemes was able to co-write alongside Clara Royer and get a local production off the ground.
Son of Saul, then is a glimpse into two days of the life of Saul Ausländer, who works as part of a Sonderkommando within the Auschwitz death camp. These unwilling collaborators were drawn from those destined for the gas chambers and given a stay of execution, in order to deal with the bodies, fillet valuables from the discarded clothing and keep the crematoria running. In other words, the distasteful ‘nitty gritty’ that the German soldiers themselves, wouldn’t deign themselves to be troubled with.
It’s a problem seldom addressed in fiction. Consider the ‘Death Star’ in Star Wars, for example. Yes, it’s an impressive feat of engineering, but who’s cleaning the toilets? One imagines George Lucas was content to base his uniformed legions on the Nazis, but drew the line at a version of the Sonderkommando populated with oppressed aliens…
But here we are, with two days in the life of Saul Ausländer; a role inhabited with convincing passivity by Géza Röhrig. Nemes opens the film with an unfocussed composition. People in a wooden glade. A figure walks up to the camera and swims into focus: Saul. Now, our P.O.V. tracks along as Saul and his fellow Kommando, cajole and usher a group of men, women & children into an ‘undressing room’, then ‘the shower’. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on, but throughout it all, Nemes holds his camera tight to Saul’s face. While we’re hearing all manner of ghastliness occurring just beyond the lens’ periphery, we’re not seeing much. And why should we? This might be Nemes’ first film, but he instinctively knows the power of imagination to always out-do whatever he might show us.
Out of the screams and thuds on the other side of the steel doors, comes a miracle: a young boy, who’s alive: that is, until an SS doctor suffocates him. A request is made to have the body autopsied, but witnessing this casual murder has triggered something in Saul. He believes the boy to be his own son and he now makes it his duty to see the body is buried, under the auspices of a Rabbi; no easy feat in Auschwitz… The quest to find such a figure leads Saul over the next two days, to snatch glimpses from other Kommando units; glimpses that might even be of Hell on Earth.
A work-party shovelling cremated ash into a river. The unexpected arrival – at night – of fresh truckloads of more victims (euphemistically referred to as ‘pieces’) that threaten to overwhelm the camp’s already over-stretched capacity, so are just gunned down, naked, in-front of open pits, over which soldiers strake with flamethrowers. And all the while, Saul is our witness, as much as we are witnessing him suffer on our behalf.
Events reach boiling-point when Saul’s Sonderkommando, already fearing for their own lives, stage an uprising and subsequent breakout from the camp; an event that actually happened in October, 1944. Through it all, moves Saul, carrying the boy’s shrouded body accompanied by a Rabbi he’s managed to save; a figure dazed at the incomprehensibility of what he’s seeing.
Géza Röhrig’s impassive face is the perfect guide for this experience. Except for a single, illuminating moment, his face registers no emotion. And how can it? Saul has already seen enough of the truth, to have become inured to it and to engage in dialogue or exchange with the new arrivals, is to invite one’s own death. Yet the human impulse is to survive and bear witness as best one can, to the horrors.
Someone has to live to see the end. Live to see history – and justice – written. This is the Fate allotted to the Sonderkommando be they aware of it or not.
For each man – and woman – assigned to such units is already dead. Indeed, a title-card at the film’s beginning, tells us the average life expectancy of a Kommando was just two months. Yet these ‘dead men walking’ are also human beings. People, with rich pasts and defiant, proud cultures. In seeking the rite of ‘Kaddish’ for the boy, I think it’s irrelevant whether or not he really is Saul’s son, for what he’s actually seeking, is Kaddish for his people.
For his country. For a Europe now vanished and debased.
It’s a symbolic ideal upon which he embarks and one that, almost despite themselves, his peers come to respect him for; remarkable, given the frenzy in which they exist and the lack of worth given to human life.
Throughout, Nemes is reliant on his DP, Mátyás Erdély’s mastery of the Steadicam, but the shots more than repay the risks taken. Takes are long and allowed to run-on, as the camera manages seamless transitions between ground-and-truck or when following Saul into water. Given our restricted field-of-view as an artistic choice, it’s also remarkable how Erdély manages to hold-focus on Saul throughout. The other vital sensorial component in all this, is the sound design. I learn that this took months to mix in post-production, but the resultant soundscape is wide, atmospheric and seemingly authentic. A word, too, for the look of the film. Seldom has a movie looked so effective with such a desaturated, restricted palette. With its array of muddy ochres and dulled greens, it’s as restrained in its outlook on the world, as Saul is himself.
Yet above it all, this remains Saul’s tale. With a relentless focus on his quiet, drawn and knife-edged features, could the film have been anything else? Yes, what dialogue there is, is terse and almost hushed, but as alluded to, this reflects an imperative not to be seen as anything other than subservient. I also think the underlying plot strand to be somewhat forced, if not plain incredible, but on this occasion I think that’s to miss the point.
We already know the story and how it ends. What László Nemes has done, is to find a new way of telling it. He, along with his collaborators, have created ‘an absolute good’ and, for that I’m grateful.
Grateful to those who’ve gone before. Grateful to those who’ve brought the story to flickering life and grateful to be here to witness it for myself.
Give it a go. You might be too.
Abraham: ‘You failed the living for the dead.’
Saul: ‘We are dead already.’