Son of Saul is the most relentless, disturbing, upsetting film you are likely to see this year, or any year. It is like a nightmare torn out of the subconscious and made real. It is essential viewing.
To say that Son of Saul is a horror film is merely to underline the inadequacy of cinematic categories. The film’s story of the Sonderkommando – the ‘special units’ of death camp prisoners put to work by the Nazis in the industrial extermination of Jews and others, before themselves being exterminated – is beyond horror, beyond drama. It exists in a kind of black hole of human experience where the rules of the universe evaporate.
The Sonderkommando of Auschwitz had an average camp lifespan of three months. Each ‘generation’ of Sonderkommando began their working life with the task of disposing of the bodies of the previous generation. In Auschwitz they might number from a few hundred to almost a thousand, depending on the rate at which the camp was killing people. They lived apart from other inmates, experiencing slightly better conditions while fully aware that they even more than any other prisoners were marked for death. Their intimate knowledge of the extermination process was their death warrant.
The Nazis worked with tireless efficiency to ensure that no trace of this knowledge survived the camps, and that no one should survive to bear witness. But there is always a trace: a record did survive, in first person Sonderkommando accounts buried within the camps, and most extraordinarily in a tiny handful of photographs taken in Auschwitz with a camera probably obtained from a bribed guard. This historical testimony is the basis of Son of Saul.
Any artist, any writer, any film-maker who approaches this story must accept that the experiences of the Sonderkommando are an affront to imagination. They do not seem to call for elaboration. They cannot be made more awful than they are, because awfulness is already at the maximum. The question is how to express something that is at the outer limits of the expressable. For a film-maker it is as if light is the wrong medium.
The film opens without preamble or explanation: there is no ‘why’. We are simply hurled into the abyss. The camera focusses exlusively on the face of Saul, the Sonderkommando of the title. Everything else takes place in a de-focused background, or distant tableau. It is as if nothing in this world can be seen clearly because what is taking place is beyond comprehension.
But everyone who watches this film does know what is happening. The arrival of the transport trains. The march to the ‘showers’. The stripping of clothes, valuables, luggage, toys. The closing of the great steel doors of the chamber. The realisation.
Meanwhile the air is filled with the dreadful shouts and shrieks of command, the gasps and cries of the victims, and a constant crashing and wheezing of some foul machinery. It is the job of the Sonderkommando to live and to work in this lurid parody of normality, methodically salvaging everything that can be extracted from the clothes and the bodies (the ‘pieces’) of the dead, and finally to reduce them to ash. The qualification for survival – if only for the few months of a Sonderkommando career – is to behave as if this was indeed normality. At no point (until the very last frames of the film) does Saul betray the slightest emotion.
In 1944 there was an uprising among the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz, resulting in the death of several SS guards and the escape from the camp of a small group of Sonderkommando. This historical revolt provides a background narrative in Son Of Saul, but it is only background. In the foreground is a different story.
A child survives the gas chamber, briefly, and then dies. Saul comes to believe the child is his son. Perhaps he is right, it is not clear, but he believes it. He decides that the child must be saved from cremation and buried. He searches among the newly arrived transports for a rabbi who can recite the burial Kaddish, and in a terrible scene saves such a man from immediate extermination. Is the man a rabbi? That is not clear either, but Saul believes it.
This is the emotional core of the film. Inside this deathcamp universe where an almost impossible blend of order and amoral confusion has been established, Saul comes to believe that it is possible to accomplish a moral act. The unfolding of this belief and its consequences is a tragedy that is multiplied for being so understated.
Hungarian-made Son of Saul won the 2016 Oscar for best foreign language film, as it deserved to do. Shot on what in today’s terms is a tiny budget (it cost little more than $1 million) the film is an achievement that brings together great individual and ensemble playing, and a controlled but passionate conviction. It looks oddly beautiful.
The blending of historically authentic and fictional elements is also handled with great delicacy. The real Sonderkommando photographs which survived from Auschwitz are among the most powerful documents of modern history, seeming to show nothing yet everything – a glimpse through a doorway of piled bodies being readied for cremation, a blurred horror-fragment of the brief forced march from the transports to the death chambers. They transcend the many post-liberation records of the camps, because they are in the moment. The very fact of their making amounts to one of the greatest acts of faith imaginable, something that in this film is coldly dramatised in a way that seems scrupulously faithful to the originals.
Son of Saul ends with a moment of transcendence, and then something else. It would not be truthful for such a work to permit itself to resolve or to end on a rising note, and it does not. It is a mark of the extraordinary restraint of this film, depicting a world in which all restraint has been abolished, that it is so completely satisfying. You would be infinitely the poorer for missing it.
Son Of Saul is on UK national release from 29 April.