Through a combination of personal viewings and press screenings, I’ve seen a surprisingly high number of films with connections to the atrocities of the Germans in World War II, particularly dealing with the Holocaust. It’s a bit strange, in a way, how that period of time seems to dominate filmmaking of historical time periods like no other. I don’t say that as something that should be considered negative, to be clear. It intrigues me, though, how the broader events of this period have been used to tell a wide range of stories, and how even newer films can still find a way to find different approaches to this period.
All of that to say, I knew the basic idea of what I was going to see when I watched Son of Saul. But the story it tells, and the way it’s told, made this experience feel horrifyingly fresh.
Son of Saul centers on a day and a half in the life of Saul (Géza Röhrig), a prisoner at Auschwitz. Saul works as a Sonderkommando, one of the Jewish prisoners put to work by the Nazis with the promise of a little more time kept alive – even if it’s mere days or weeks. Saul has clearly become numb to his surroundings, but as he’s performing one of his regular tasks – clearing bodies from the gas chambers – he’s torn out of that state as he convinces himself that a young boy still (barely) breathing after going through the chambers is his son. The boy can’t be saved at this point, but Saul convinces himself of something he can do: provide the boy with a proper Jewish funeral. In Auschwitz.
While plenty of other characters come in and out of the frame, Saul is the focus of the film. In order to make this more pronounced, the film was shot using the Academy ratio, keeping the frame tight on Saul for nearly the entire running time. Given some of the experiences Saul witnesses and goes through, not going this route might just make the film unbearable to watch. It comes pretty close as is.
From the moment Saul sees the boy, there’s a sense of relentless momentum to the film. Saul makes his way over large parts of Auschwitz looking for a rabbi, and in the process we see the different pieces of the camp that make the whole place operate. It not only covers the gas chambers and large pits that double as mass graves, but the bunkers where prisoners scheme to find a way out. That scheming ends up playing a bigger part of the film. Saul turns out to be a part of a protesting insurgency within the Sonderkommandos, who are planning their escape. Saul’s mission to bury this boy becomes his driving force, at the risk of endangering his vital part in the group’s plan.
Make no mistake, Son of Saul is by no means an easy watch. The overall tone of the film is only heightened by its use of actors who speak the various languages spoken within the concentration camps. But it’s a fascinating film all the same, particularly with the way it handles its clearly fallible protagonist. In many ways, Saul isn’t an ideal hero. But he is someone who’s clearly been reduced to nothing, and somehow manages to get a small piece of himself back in a place where it shouldn’t happen. In its own way, Son of Saul provides a tiny bit of hope.