I never have an easy time watching movies about the Holocaust. The real life horror inflicted upon so many millions of people causes serious distress to my sensibilities, forcing me to confront truths I’d rather ignore. Which is why it’s important that I give that particular event my attention whenever it comes up, be it in a movie or a history book. It’s not an easy topic for any human to digest, but it happened. Fairly recently in the grand scheme of things. As much as it’d be more comfortable and convenient to stick my head in the sand and hum loudly to myself, forcing a confrontation with man’s capacity for evil is a philosophical necessity that cannot be neglected.
Son of Saul offers as unflinching a look behind the curtain of evil as a movie has ever achieved. Even in comparison to other films that explore this dark chapter of modern history, it’s hard to watch. Harder still, however, is it to look away. Writer/director Laszlo Nemes thrusts you directly into the horrific grounds of Auschwitz to give the audience an unprecedented and unparalleled glimpse of life in a Nazi death camp.
Geza Rohrig stars as the imprisoned Saul Auslander. As a member of the Sonderkommando, he’s forced to lead his people to their deaths in the Auschwitz gas chambers and dispose of their bodies and belongings after. It’s during one of these mass executions that he happens across the body of a young boy, a boy that he takes to be his illegitimate son from an affair years ago. Rather than do as he is commanded and burn the body, Saul wishes to give the body a proper Jewish burial at the expense of his safety and the safety of his camp. To make matters worse, the other members of the Sonderkommando are in the midst of planning an uprising, and Saul’s actions threaten to bring the planning to a halt.
The Sonderkommando rebellion is based on an actual event of Auschwitz history, adding weight to an already heavy story. Nemes tells the story here as it must have been experienced by those outside the planning—we never quite know what’s happening, we only know that something is up. He allows the events to unfold slowly, as a sort of backdrop to our main story, Saul and his quest for a burial.
Throughout the film, the camera follows Saul as a sort of ever present companion. The result of which provides the audience with an eerie insight into the horrors of Auschwitz—through the camera, the audience becomes a sort of character themselves, as though we are a friend of Saul’s, joining him on his quest. We never quite see the horrors of the camp; the gassing takes place behind closes doors as we hear muffled screams and pounding; bodies are shown as part of the background; Nazis commit heinous crimes just within our periphery. Somehow, this lack of direct confrontation makes the horror seem all the more real.
There’s a kind of ugliness that permeates the film, one the mirrors perfectly the realities of the situation. Son of Saul is unconcerned with providing you with traditionally aesthetic shots. The grittiness of the film reflects the psychic tone of situation, forcing the viewer headlong into a philosophical confrontation they might not be prepared to handle.
It’s a difficult but necessary confrontation to have. There’s never a moment of easiness, nothing to take the mind off of the grotesque atrocities and inhumanity of Auschwitz. Ultimately, this is what separates Son of Saul from other movies exploring the Holocaust. There’s an unsettling intimacy given to the death and dehumanization that impacts in ways no movie before it has ever achieved.
As much as it’s easier to try and forget the Holocaust, or to view it strictly from the cold isolation of history, it’s a topic deserving not only of our interest and respect, but of our philosophical understanding. There are precious few of us still here to give us the insight of their experiences, and that number dwindles with every passing year. Son of Saul gives a voice to the voiceless, giving us firsthand experience with life in a death camp that stays with you long after the movie has ended.
Son of Saul is now playing in limited release.