In a court in Detmold, Germany a ninety- four year old former Auschwitz guard may break his silence. Reinhold Hanning ‘s name is on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times ( February 12th, 2016) ,and we are reminded of sins against humanity that sear heart and soul. We are told that more trials are scheduled for complicity in the death of hundreds of thousands during the Holocaust.
The Hungarian film “Son Of Saul” does not remind, but forces us to live a piece of the horror. It is not for the faint of heart. Unlike “Labryrinth Of Lies”, my favorite foreign film of last year, ( reviewed November 14th, 2015 ), “Son Of Saul” does not have a protagonist seeking the historical truth, but one that is deranged living it.
Initially, the camera projects a haze, like an image viewed with unfocused eyes. We see a head shot of Saul which almost fills the screen. There is no score and almost no dialogue. Action whirls behind him. Subtitles tell us he is a Hungarian Jew serving in the Sonderkommando, a prisoner with special duties. He wears a cap and a coat with an uglily marked red- X on his back. Saul’s mind is trying to find more than a focus on the dragging of bodies, the scrubbing of blood and feces, and the closing and locking of the shower doors.
Gera Rohrig ‘s face ( Saul ) looks like a romantic poet’s. He is the bearer of secrets. This is his first film and first-time director’s Laszlo Nemes’. Four Grand Prix Awards at Cannes have been garnered. Tamas Szekely’s sound editing is paramount. As viewers we crave for silence amid the whistles, commands, dog barks and infernal noise. When it comes we are exhausted rather than at peace. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely has us spinning as he shows most of the horror happening behind Saul’s profile. The ashes being shoveled, the “pieces” (corpses) being thrown and pulled and dumped, the clothes rummaged through in search of “shineys”, all are special duties in the death organizing of six million human beings.
New train transports and train noise with cries and screams repeat in circular fashion. A spinning death machine is made visceral amid lies of hot soup and showers and even jobs. Shadows blurr over Saul’s mien as he helps some undress and hang up their clothing. The action is so real and so frenetically fast: we are left breathless. And then there is the sound of many banging on the locked doors.
Viewers are led by sound. Saul Aislander turns from the gas chamber doors to continue his work. There are a few bodies left on the floor outside the showers. We,along with Saul, hear a gasp ~breathing from a boy’s body. He puts the boy on a crate before he is ordered back to work. We see the prisoner/doctor’s interest as he smothers the boy and orders an autopsy. Saul intervenes and begs his Hungarian comrade not to cut the boy’s body. ” Leave him as he is.” Saul carries the dead boy upstairs to Sonderkommando quarters: the doctor has allowed Saul five minutes with him. It is a small Phyrric victory interrupted by a new transport.
It is here that the mission of Saul coalesces. He must have the Kaddish read and the boy buried. This obsession makes no sense, but then nothing does in this hellish circle of orchestrated death. Ten men reciting the Kaddish would be according to Jewish law, but Saul must have a rabbi. “Help me, I need a rabbi” becomes his prayer amidst the whispers of a planned rebellion. A trade is made. If Saul serves as a courier and brings gun powder back from the women’s building where belongings are being sorted, others will help him locate his rabbi. Negotiations for resources in shown, as is attempts to save documentation of the attrocities being preformed.
One of the film’s most shocking sequences takes place in a chance meeting of Saul with a group of Nazi commanders. The derision is arresting. You will not forget it. It is as hellish as the fire pits.
The Nemes’ script co- written by Clara Royer has ironic depth. One rabbi is called “the rabbi from the dead” because he is so traumatised that he can only stare. One fellow Sonderkommando hisses at Saul as he digs a grave for the boy, ” This is my spot.” And finally, one fellow worker admonishes Saul, “you have traded the living for the dead”. “We are already dead ” becomes the answer.
“Son Of Saul” ‘s final water and forest settings do give us reprieve from the wet floors and dark corridors of Nazis horror. The film has some flaws. One being the over abundance of female body parts shown in relationship to those of men. This may be because the all male collectors of the dead notice the beautiful bodies. But libido seems beyond the point for these victims. Acts of kindness and “forgive mes” are shown, and for certain, the meaning of the final enigmatic smile on Saul’s face will be talked about as much as that of the wry Mona Lisa’s. This film is art that takes us to a place we would rather not go.