Son of Saul – first look

László Nemes’s drama of a Sonderkommando’s private grief amidst public horror demurs from the usual spectacles of Holocaust – and ratchets up the aural impressions.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2015.

Read Nick James on Son of Saul’s Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Nick James
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Son of Saul (Saul Fia, 2015)

Son of Saul (Saul Fia, 2015)

One of the most terrifying radio dramas I have ever listened to is the soundtrack of offscreen events in László Nemes’s film Son of Saul. It’s a maelstrom of screamed orders, clanking machinery, grinding motors, brutal beatings and random shootings that hardly ever dies down.

Why these events are mostly out of our sight is because the camera mostly keeps tight to the face or back of the film’s protagonist, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a resilient Hungarian Jew who has survived life thus far at a Nazi extermination camp by becoming a Sonderkommando, one of the inmates tasked with helping the Nazis in their goal of mass-annihilation. But another reason is because Nemes goes out of his way — to the extent of having big choreographed epic scenes of huge crowds, vehicles, costumes, gas ovens, burnings and all sorts of vileness going on only at the edges of the frame — to avoid what we might call holocaust porn, those films that seek solace in the iconography of sacrifice and in the anti-glamour of concentration-camp tourism.

And the soundtrack and the lack of foreknowledge of what danger might be about to affect our central figure from outside the film’s narrow viewpoint wears you down, and you feel your own forbearance slipping away because the frantic push/pull between slaughter and survival just won’t stop. This is helpful, however, in getting us into an impossible-to-imagine mindset: how you can nurture a private grief when thousands are dying around you every day?

Auslander’s job, for the brief period before he appears on a list for execution himself, is to speedily herd the newcomers straight into the changing rooms, to get them to divest, and then urge them into the gas ovens, and afterwards to drag out the bodies, now referred to (in the English subtitles) as ‘pieces’. When a young boy briefly survives the Zyklon B, Saul recognises him as his own and, obsessed with trying to arrange a proper Jewish burial for him, takes all kinds of risks in order to retrieve the body and track down a Rabbi who can show him the correct procedure.

Of course, to have shot such a melodramatic sequence of events in a conventional war-movie fashion would have undermined the director’s principled stand against the Holocaust fictional canon. By keeping the camera always close in, Son of Saul is brilliant at conveying the economy of bribes and favours that the Sonderkommandos fostered.

A literalist might carp at the way Auslander seems much of the time to be a free agent, able to go where he pleases, or stand around and contemplate the horror whenever he feels like. It’s as though, with the big red Sonderkommando X on his back, he has his own form of temporary invisibility, so that he can become the ghost of himself while still alive.

Yet, just like Auslander’s life, every state of being Son of Saul puts us through feels very temporary indeed.

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