“Son of Saul” is Hungarian director Lásló Nemes' monumental feature debut about the Holocaust.
It is 1944 and a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), is part of a group of Hungarian Jews known as the Sonderkommandos, who are forced to collaborate with the Germans in exchange for preferential treatment. Saul's job is getting the new arrivals in to their “showers”, then disposing of their bodies while confiscating any valuables they may have.
One day he witnesses a young boy still breathing after having survived the gas chamber. The camp doctor, himself a prisoner, suffocates the boy to use the body for an autopsy. Taking the boy for his son, Saul turns his focus away from the living and their plans of rebellion, to embark on the impossible task of finding a Rabbi to give the boy a proper burial according to Jewish tradition.
“Son of Saul” is a haunting, captivating and strangely beautiful film, and while it is dealing with a story told many times before, Lásló manages to convey it in a new and intimate way. With no narration and a minimum of dialogue, it shows lead actor Géza in the frame most of the time, the camera breathing down his neck as he moves through the camp and on occasion showing his point of view. The horrors around him is left out of focus in the periphery, letting us in on Saul's subjective experience and perhaps also his way of distancing himself from the world around him. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one, and its dreamlike, evocative imagery will stay with you.
When screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival, the audience met with director Lásló Nemes for a Q&A
Lásló about the research he did about the Sonderkommandos:
-I think the reality of the extermination of the Jews are not really that well known. The Sonderkommandos are the heart of the machine, which is a horrible machine obviously. I don't think people really understand how visceral the concentration camps were, which is something I wanted to convey. But the starting point of the project was when I read the manuscripts of the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz. These people from the crematories wrote down diaries of their every day lives, so we were transported as readers to the midst of the extermination. They were thinking of how to rebel, and were sometimes making notes in a very factual manner about their days and the people they saw. I didn't want to make a post-war approach to the Holocaust, I wanted to be at the heart of the concentration camp. All these films dealing with survival are from a remote standpoint, and I, on the contrary, wanted to deal with the very center of the machine and not being remote from it. And then obviously we had other sources, testimonies from Sonderkommandos after the war, and my co-writer and myself we studied history quite extensively during our years at the university so I guess we were not afraid of dealing with a historical subject.
Lásló about the premise and the core of his film:
-Something I wanted to convey is how limited the individual must have been, how only fragmented information could have reached the individual, not knowing what will happen around the corner. This is the premise of my film; try to stay with one man and rely more on the imagination of the viewer to recreate the extermination machine, instead of trying to show it too much which will reduce it. I really understood what the core of the movie was while making it and not beforehand, it came to me in the process. When there's no more humanity, no more hope, no more God or religion – is there still a possibility of an inner voice or an inner God or some kind of light in hell?
Lásló about the film's unique style:
- We wrote ourself a set of principles; handheld camera, try not to expose suffering as in making a beautiful film out of it, try to remain at eye level, using one lens almost throughout the film, and staying very close to the perception of the eye.
Lásló about why making another film about the Holocaust:
- After seeing it its more difficult for me to answer because its in itself the answer. People have an intellectual but not a visceral understanding of the limitations and suffering of the individual in the concentration camp. We tend to present a remote point of view, judging people from the armchair, why did they go to the gas chambers, why didn't they rebel, what should have been done. Actually, when you're inside, you have very little information as an individual, and I wanted to speak about that. We also made this film because the people are dying now that had direct experience of the Holocaust, and the new generations will get more and more remote from it. At the very heart of the civilization, we still live with the questions of the Holocaust, and Europe is still haunted by it.
“Son of Saul” won 4 awards at Cannes International Film Festival this spring, and is selected as Hungary's best foreign Oscar entry 2016. The film continues its successful run at the film festivals, and now it's in Competition at the Stockholm International Film Festival between November 11th – 22nd.
“Son of Saul” will be released in US movie theaters December 18th, 2015. Don't miss it!
/Annika Andersson (as posted on MovieZone November 12th, 2015)