The gas chambers, the incinerators and the sickening machinery of genocide are all vividly dissected in Son of Saul as viewers are plunged into the midst of Hitler’s Final Solution at work. Audiences are dragged along on the gut wrenching journey of one man, a tiny cog in this machine of mass slaughter. For those who think they’ve seen all the horror that holocaust films can muster, Son of Saul scrapes new depths of despair in its harrowing depiction of the inner workings of Auschwitz in 1944.
We follow title character Saul, a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando at an Auschwitz crematorium. His job is to herd his fellow Jews to the gas chambers, where he then scrubs away the evidence of their deaths, before removing the bodies and plundering their belongings for the Nazis. But when the seemingly desensitised Saul finds the body of a boy he takes to be his son, he suddenly finds a way to grasp at some small sense of redemption in amongst all the senseless killing. He makes it his mission to save the boy’s corpse from cremation, and to find a rabbi who can recite the Kaddish prayer as he buries his child. Even as those around him plan rebellion in order to stand a chance at survival, Saul sticks rigidly to his plan to find a way to give the boy a proper burial.
It is revealed at the opening of the film that the Sonderkommando are also known as the ‘keepers of secrets’. The opening sequence reveals a calm and controlled Saul leading faceless prisoners in their masses to the gas chambers, making it difficult to feel sympathy with the main character. Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos do what they do out of fear, but as the screams and cries of hundreds of Jews ring out from the chamber, and Saul stands placidly outside, it is enough to make the blood boil. It is of course impossible to judge such men and such actions without living through such a hellish experience, but the Saul we meet in the opening scene is both tragic and enraging.
As the process of mass genocide is viscerally depicted from gassing naked prisoners to dumping the ash of their cremated bodies in rivers, Son of Saul becomes an incredibly distressing document, no matter how familiar you are with the actions of the Nazis. Down in the depths of the crematorium, it is impossible to look away from the death and disgust. It’s like a dungeon where the screams echo around the walls, the sweat drips off everybody’s necks and the stench of death is everywhere.
While the camera remains firmly rooted on Saul’s face, or more often the back of his head as we follow him through the dank corridors, it is the sounds that disturb the most. The roar of the furnaces, the occasional gunshots, the shouting of the guards and cries of people who know they are about to die are all stifling and oppressive. All conversations between the prisoners are nothing more than hushed and hurried whispers as the threat of discovery is always over their shoulders. There is no escape from the noises of mass murder and no music on the soundtrack to jolt the viewer back into the ‘it’s only a movie’ mind state.
Despite its characters being complicit in the Nazi’s attempts to make their fellow Jews extinct, their desperate situation is obvious. Even as they participate in their gruelling daily tasks, the threat to their own lives remains clear. The rebellion that is bubbling in the background takes a backseat to Saul’s own selfish desire to save his so-called son from incineration. The two storylines clash as the tension mounts in the film’s second half. When it is revealed that the Sonderkommando are soon to be eliminated, there is renewed danger as the film heads towards an erratic and incredibly tense climax.
Though Son of Saul never loses sight of its title character, and Geza Gohrig gives an astounding performance using little more than his face, the film is ultimately much than the story of just Saul. It is an impossible to forget cinematic autopsy of the horrors of Auschwitz and an extraordinary debut from director Laszlo Nemes
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.