Son of Saul (Saul fia is the original title) is the first film as director of László Nemes, Hungarian, who in 2015 unexpectedly won tons of awards including the Grand prix at Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign language film. The theme of the movie is the holocaust and the director treats it in a cold, raw, non-melodramatic, documentary-like manner. And it’s no coincidence that the plot is actually based on real events… Let’s start from the plot, even though in my opinion it is of secondary importance in the logic of the film.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. He’s part of a Sonderkommando that is a team of prisoners assigned to cleaning the gas chambers and collecting the precious objects belonging to the people killed by the Nazis in the aforementioned chambers. One day, Saul spots his son in one of the groups sent to die in what the German soldiers simply called “showers”. Or, at least, he seems convinced that he’s his son. The kid almost miraculously survives the inhalation of the Zyklon B gas, but gets killed shortly afterwards by one of the German doctors. From that moment, Saul will have no other objective than to give a dignified burial to the corpse of his son and for this he starts looking for a rabbi. In his research, he comes across other members of Sonderkommandos in action to clean up the remains of extermination carried out by the Nazis at Auschwitz, and he witnesses endless atrocities including cold-blooded executions, massacres, and endless unjustified violence.
We the audience experience all these events through the eyes of a hand-held camera that incessantly follows Saul, a 40mm lenses’ camera which offers a very limited, oppressive field of vision. The colors are all dark: the gray of the dirty clothes of the prisoners and the fog, the brown of the blood and of the soil, the black of darkness… there’s not even a moment of calm, of quiet. For a day and a half we enter the infernal life of the extermination camp and not even for a second does the director offer us some hope, nor a beautiful or luminous image. The real protagonist of the film is not Saul. It’s death, it’s the lack of light and hope.
I don’t know if you got it, but the film is like a punch in the stomach that perfectly conveys the message that Nazi violence had no meaning and the atrocities committed in that historical period have no possible justification. And this message is even stronger knowing that the facts that we see unfolding before our protagonist’s eyes actually happened: there were prisoners forced to cooperate with the Nazi butchers, some Sonderkommandos really rebelled against the guards in the 1944 in Auschwitz, the character of the woman who passes Saul’s gunpowder is based on a person who actually lived and died there…
What else to say? This film is an experience: watch it and come out of it hopefully more sensitive to certain political themes that, unfortunately, nowadays are coming back with unexpected force: the extreme right is getting more and more consensus around themes like racism and the hatred of the different. Let’s not forget which disasters similar ideas have brought in the past. Son of Saul helps us not to forget it and so I’m happy to have watched it and also that its importance has been recognized in terms of critics and public praise throughout the world. Ciao!
PS: if you want to complete your week with a couple of other movies on the holocaust, let me suggest you the following two movies: Schindler’s list (1993) by Steven Spielberg and The pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski. Next week try to watch some Pixar!