There is a great fear amongst contemporary Jews that the atrocities of the Holocaust may one day be forgotten. As most survivors have passed away, and the struggle of documenting the lives and stories of those lost persists, finding potent means of discussing Auschwitz and camps like it is as important as ever. With a brilliant feature debut, László Nemes and co-writer Clara Royer have created a remarkable film about the hope within hopelessness, and the flickers of light we cling to in order to maintain our humanity while we drown in atrocity.
Son of Saul is told entirely from the perspective of Saul Auslander (played with stark brilliance by Ghéza Röhrig), a Hungarian Polish Jew, and Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. Set in early October, 1944, the film opens with Saul’s unflinching perspective as he leads the latest train of Jews into the gas chambers. Once the screams have faded, the real work begins. Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos remove the bodies for cremation. But amongst the corpses, he finds a young boy, who briefly clings to life. He is Saul’s son, or so he believes.
The reliability of our narrator is questionable – Saul’s conviction that this boy is his own is unwavering, yet those around him seem less convinced that Saul isn’t simply clinging to some personification of hope. He feverishly searches for a Rabbi who might help him bury the boy with dignity, and save him from the crematorium. In so doing, he puts his own life, and those of his fellow prisoners, at risk.
Shot either over Saul’s shoulder as he navigates the death camp, or focusing on his anxious expressions as he pleads with the mortician to spare his son’s corpse from autopsy, we are shown a singular view of a catastrophic place. Nemes’ direction allows for a necessarily painful and stark depiction of the reality of Auschwitz, and the atrocities the Nazis would have the Jews carry out against their own people. While telling the story of a man desperate to protect his son, even in death, we are shown the desperation of a people to survive at all costs.
‘Son of Saul’ has already screened at TIFF, but opens at the end of 2015-early 2016 in theatres