If October 1944 was a pivotal time for Ronald Zehrfeld’s Johannes and Nina Hoss’ Nelly Lenz in Phoenix—her personal transport to Auschwitz—it, as well as this very place, is the setting of László Nemes’ stunning feature film debut, Son of Saul. I’m not sure there is a Holocaust film genre per se, but with continued cinematic absorption with the historical horror it was, there appears to be one now. Nemes threw his writer-director’s cap into the ring upon perusing The Scrolls of Auschwitz, a collective publication of Sonderkommando war diaries unearthed from the ashes of the crematoria as if written by the dead. That and an additional reading of We Wept Without Tears: Testimonies of the Jewish Sonderkommando from Auschwitz, published 20 years later in 2005, give Nemes’ cinematic interpretation of these chronicles from hell a personal immediacy driven home not only by its focused and innovative hand-held camera work but by a critically acclaimed performance by lead actor Géza Röhrig as a particular—and most peculiar—Sonderkommando, Saul Ausländer.
If Nemes, whose most significant contribution had been as assistant director on fellow Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 2007 Palme d’Or-nominated The Man from London, took home an Oscar for his Best Foreign Language Film, Röhrig, a Bronx-based poet and former underground punk-rock performer in his native Budapest who hadn’t acted since the late 1980s, was not even nominated, something of a surprise considering the widespread critical acclaim for his absorbing, expressive, often mute performance, including topping the 2015 Village Voice Film Poll and taking 2nd Place from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and The National Society of Film Critics for Best Actor. Yes, the film is the second Hungarian film to win in the category, a nice recompense for the nation, which saw a considerable number of its deported Jewish population infused into Auschwitz and Birkenau in this daunting period of …Saul’s setting—that summer, from May to June, after Nazi tanks rolled into Budapest in March even as the sun was setting on the entire insidious operation and the jig was nearly up, nearly 440,000 of the more than 860,000 prewar population were transported to their impending doom in the death camps: most all of the film’s financing came from the Hungarian National Film Fund and national tax credits after international financiers refused to take a chance on Nemes, the novice Parisian film-school dropout. Now, you must assume Hollywood has been knocking at Nemes’ door for his services, which is fitting, seeing as how …Saul is something of the Citizen Kane of 2015 in terms of innovative cinematic technique.
I know I’ve never seen anything like it. The film’s somewhat claustrophobic immediacy posits its audience directly into the Auschwitz factory, as if being strapped into a roller coaster car and jolted forward without warning for the particularly ferocious ride ahead; it never lets go. It’s not as if we ourselves are being prepped for the perfunctory welcoming shower, but we are right there in the chambers, amid the brisk, barely controlled chaos. Röhrig’s Saul is our guide, the camera way up close on his intense facial expression, a large red “X” painted on the back of his jacket, a scarlet letter, as he hurriedly escorts incoming prisoners—men, women and children—into the chambers of ultimate horror, as if he were ferrying passengers on the passage to Hades. With the camera close-up on Saul throughout as hew urgently executes his special-unit responsibilities, the horror unfolds haphazardly, out of focus in the background; we experience it in bits and pieces—scrambling initiates, fallen bodies, blood, detritus, guttural shouts, piercing screams, dust, smoke, the boots of Nazis, a pistol pressing to the head—evidence and clues, the minutiae of Saul’s frantic, clandestine factory world, an inner glimpse into the everyday efficiency of his people’s predetermined extermination—hands, arms, legs, torsos and faces executing the trivial demands of the assembly-line liquidation, one body, one human being, at a time, thousands a day, posthaste, before the Soviets arrive. Saul and his peers gathering and rifling through discarded articles of clothing, separating jewelry and coins, disposing of what is no longer needed or useful, washing away the aftermath in streams of blood riveting across the hard floors, collecting and dispatching of naked bodies, quickly, intently, so the trains, after all, do run on time, because night approaches, and tomorrow the sun will bring a new day, and the brisk routine will be the very same. The reproduction is a testament to the entire Hungarian crew, including rising cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (James White, Miss Bala), production designer László Rajk (The Turin Horse, Miss Arizona), sound designer Tamás Zányi, sound editor Tamás Székely, and film editor Matthieu Taponier, among others. While Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant pivoted on the CGI-induced bear mauling of its lead protagonist, Son of Saul is a tour de force of studio-enhanced realism.
Amid it all, an anomaly, a Nazi curiosity—a young boy survives the showers, if only fleetingly, an aberration from the inhumane. The sight transfixes Saul, as if it were a sign, and immersed within the Sonderkommando ritual, he has a new task: the boy’s proper burial, complete with rabbinical recitation of the Kaddish. The protagonist goes about this with a grim finality, securing enough waning moments under cover of his official charge to keep the clandestine mission moving forward, most especially the services of a presiding Jewish physician, Miklós (Sándor Zsótér, White God, Viktoria: A Tale of Grace and Greed). More problematic is finding a willing Rabbi to consecrate the deceased. A harrowing encounter with the volatile Apikoyres (Márton Ágh, White God), known as The Renegade, while on an errant riverbank disposal of ashes only reinforces that Saul’s willful resolve is endangering not only himself and Miklós, who must, after all, procure another corpse of similar body, but everyone around him, including his Oberkapo, the gentle giant Biedermann (German actor Urs Rechn, The King’s Surrender, Eight Mile High). At this point so self-absorbed and irreconcilable as to be playing the village idiot, Saul alienates himself to abrasive resistance leader Abraham (Levente Molnár, Morgen), even despite his gritty, nifty work to secure a camera used to document camp atrocities from Nazi inspection. He’s tasked with retrieving a packet of gunpowder from a laundrywoman, Ella (Juli Jakab), a typically gripping and fraught encounter that implies that Saul’s seemingly delusory belief that the deceased boy is his own son may actually be true, as his estranged wife apparently resides within the camp, but then loses it that evening amid an acutely horrifying extended scene involving the arrival, separation, execution, and disposal of throngs of arriving Hungarian internees into gaping ditches amid smoke, flames, screams, and gunfire. The industrialization of mass execution runs amok, the victims are literally spilling out there are so many, yet amid the terrifying panic and chaos, Saul discovers an incoming rabbi, Braun (Todd Charmont), and manages to get the bearded man inside unscathed. Abraham and Biedermann, who may be living his last days in the conscripted conspiratorial hierarchy, are hardly pleased with the exchange; an armed insurrection is imminent, and Saul’s head appears to be elsewhere.
The publication of The Scrolls… and Testimonies… led to a reappraisal of the role of the Sonderkommando in the Holocaust. Their existence, duties, actions, and dilemmas create, of course, a classic ethical paradox that is ripe for dramatic portrayal. To posit one front and center in a feature film typically requires a sympathetic audience to be successful, especially when the protagonist is being portrayed sympathetically and is undergoing a transformative and even messianic experience. Nemes without question sees Saul’s behavior as honorable, and Röhrig has been quite outspoken in defending all Sonderkommando as pure victims. Formally seen as opportunists who sold out their people for a few camp luxuries and an extended stay, the Sonderkommando were conscripted into their duties unawares, and by force of a pistol or submachine gun. By the time they knew what was going on, it is said, it was too late. Because they knew too much of the camps’ inner workings—even in ’44 Hungarian Jews were still in disbelief about what was going on—their life expectancy was typically three months. Some made it to a year; few survived to see the light of day. The publication of the various testimonies reinforces their position as one of bearing witness to irredeemable historic tragedy. At the same time, their actions, as well as those of governments like Hungary’s, which willingly facilitated the deportations and transport of its own people, were indispensible to the Nazi’s execution of its industrialized master plan. Specialists were, indeed, required.
The filmmakers are successful in engaging our sympathies, though it’s all a bit queasy, and uneasy. For an existentialist, it is hard to see Saul’s relative ambivalence toward the resistance in contrast to his own resolute, singular cause. Nemes frames Saul’s spiritual quest as justified, because the resistance is, after all, inevitably doomed. In the film, all is subjugated to the inexorable Nazi death train; everyone inside the camp is doomed, no matter what they may, or may not, do. Just as in everyday postwar modern life, all that is left is to act honorably. Yet, the awareness today that Jewish resistance groups acted with collective courage and made great effort—camps at Treblinka and Sobibór closed toward the end after two particularly virulent Sonderkommando rebellions—though often at terrible cost, is inspiring. The filmmakers believe that outside of that, spiritual redemption and symbolic human decency is paramount. But by the time Saul’s arduous task moves into the light of a fallen Eden in the Polish countryside, it’s already too late. His final curious expression hangs ambiguously against the daunting Nazi scythe. There remains a peaceful deliverance into the heavens only for the wondrous. Like Kafka’s beleaguered bank cashier Josef K in The Trial, Saul, after all, lives, and dies, like a dog.
(Oscar, Golden Globe, and Independent Spirit Award Best Foreign Language or International Film winner Son of Saul, which also topped several critics’ lists in the same category, including the National Board of Review, is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.)
© 2016 John Tyler/24 Hours