Son of Saul
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th September, 2016
The stark reality of the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz are hard for the human mind to imagine, even when one visits the eerily empty huts that have been preserved on site. And although concentration camps have figured in many Hollywood movies — Spielberg’s Schindler’s List perhaps being the best-known example — none conveyed the true atmosphere in the way László Nemes’s Son of Saul achieves. It is a grey and brown world cut off from normal life, the air filled with smoke and the barked orders of the German SS overlords and their Polish and Jewish kapo underlings, the noise of banging doors and the shrill cries of victims arriving on transports and being shepherded to their death. The film — the director’s first — focuses on one man, Saul (brilliantly played by the Hungarian writer and poet Géza Rohrig), who is one of a team that empty the Jews’ clothes of valuables, drag the lifeless bodies to the furnaces, shovel coal and throw human ashes into a river, beyond which the “real” world exists, if only they could escape. Conversation is in brief, snatched moments, as they fulfill their gruesome tasks like automatons, all at great speed, chivied on by blows and threats. The camera rarely leaves Saul’s face, the action around him often reduced to a blur. He is emotionless, as if his mind has retreated into the innermost part of his being, until he sees a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber before being killed and whose body Saul latches on to as if it were his own son, desperately trying to locate a rabbi among the transports to give the boy a proper burial.
Son of Saul deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. I saw it at a screening at the EBRD in London last night, after which Géza Rohrig (unrecognisable behind a bushy black beard) was interviewed by Henry Fitzherbert, film critic of the Sunday Express. The actor was so affected by the experience of working on the film that he got circumcised and traveled to Israel to study Judaism. He made the telling point that other films about the Holocaust tended to focus on the one in three Jews who survived rather than the two who perished, whereas Son of Saul concentrates totally on the victims. They all die, and there is a grim inevitability about that which gives the film so much of its power, making it literally unforgettable.