“Son of Saul,” the debut feature of Hungarian writer-director László Nemes, is one of the most daring films of recent years. Not because of its subject — we’re past the days when the Holocaust was considered outside the boundaries of cinematic depiction — but because of its aesthetic approach to portraying one man’s experience as a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sonderkommandos were the Jewish prisoners ordered by Nazis to assist in the genocide of their own people: leading their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and cleaning up afterword, an exercise that entailed searching their clothes for valuables, burning their corpses and disposing of the remains. In return, they were granted some paltry privileges, including special status among the guards and the postponement of their deaths.
Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary “Shoah” includes interviews with members of those units. While other survivors ostracized many of them following the liberation of the camps, in 1945, Lanzmann disabuses us of the notion that they were somehow Nazi accomplices; rather, they were among the most terrorized of Nazi victims, forced into the guilt of participating in the slaughter.
As it is obvious that the Sonderkommando experience would drive most people to madness, viewers will not quarrel with the unusual behavior of the “Son of Saul” protagonist, Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew who arrived at Auschwitz following the mass deportation of Jews from his native country in May 1944. But what makes this film unique is the way in which its technical style serves as an instrument for telling Saul’s story.
Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in the Chicago Reader that only the first and last shots of the film are images that exist independently of Saul’s perception; the rest of it is framed by what’s within his field of vision. Such an observation is important, a reinforcement of the filmmaker’s method of delivering a stylized representation of consciousness.
The wedge of Saul’s consciousness is evoked through the film’s incessant use of long takes and sinuous traveling shots that always stay with him, following him closely and narrowly, with everything in his periphery — the real horror of the camp, its system of operation — remaining out of focus; it establishes a sense of strangeness and disorientation, and the film cares less about showing us the manifestations of horror than it does about life being lived amidst the horror.
Richard Brody wrote a learned essay for The New Yorker’s website about how this film is a gloss on ideas from Lanzman’s film. He makes a lot of insightful points — mainly how moments in “Saul” echo events that are discussed in “Shoah.” But what more pertinently permeates throughout this film is a subtle intellectual homage to the Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, whose 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicled Frankl’s own experiences in a concentration camp and detailed his theory that the search for meaning is the most powerful human motivation.
The film begins with Saul escorting Jews into “the showers” as they hang their clothes in a changing room. “Remember your hook number,” the guards tell them before it is Saul who will soon remove their clothes from the hooks. During the clean-up, Saul witnesses a young boy still breathing. But when a Nazi sees the same, he smothers the boy to death. His body is then ordered to undergo an autopsy — through the irony of wanting to examine not why he died, but why he lived.
Here is where the narrative takes off: as Saul decides he wants give this boy a proper Jewish burial, with a rabbi present to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, and as he declares to the other inmates something utterly improbable: that the boy is his son.
Saul then finds the doctor assigned to perform the procedure, who is also a prisoner, and makes an arrangement to spend time with the corpse later that night, setting him off on an obsessive quest to find a rabbi and escape with the body to perform the burial.
What follows is an allegorical tale that weaves together two different schools of art: that of escape and that of confrontation. It is at once a suspenseful thriller and a perceptive study of human needs. And its dreamlike quality in threading that needle is one of the first links to Frankl, who wrote about the experience of dreaming while he was in the camps, and how he came to realize that no nightmare could be worse than the reality of the camp.
In attempting to understand how people found the will to survive in that situation, Frankl cited the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
“Saul” is about a man who tries to find a why and relieve himself of suffering amidst the psychological turmoil of participating in the attempted extermination of European Jewry.
It’s notable that Saul’s aim to bury this boy happens as he is recruited by his fellow Sonderkommandos to participate in an armed uprising to destroy the gas chambers — something that really happened at Auschwitz in October 1944.
Saul helps, but only to advance his principal objective of burying the boy, which winds up rendering him a relatively incompetent co-conspirator. Saul becomes obsessive, and he so thoroughly gives himself over to his task that he repeatedly comes close to destroying everything in the process. At one point, another inmate tells him, “You failed the living for the dead.”
For Saul, the desire to perform this burial superseded any of his other desires, even at times that of self-preservation. How that clouds his judgment opens the film to more complicated, nuanced considerations. And there is no doubt that Saul’s fixation is irrational in the conventional sense.
When he sees this boy, however, his life becomes transformed in an instant: confined to a situation where his fate was inevitable, he attempts to assert his own agency, and thus hold on to his humanity.
I won’t give away the ending, but there is something ineffably unsatisfying about this film, which is appropriate since it deals with the Holocaust, and since it does so as a meditation on consciousness. Without giving us any facile conclusions, Nemes gives us genuine depth. Whether Saul is able to bury the boy — and whether the boy is actually is son — is not the point. What the quest means to him is what the film means for us.