SON OF SAUL
(directed by László Nemes, 2015)
****+ (out of 5)
> This emaciated holocaust survivor walks into a bar… No, wait. There was nothing funny about the holocaust. There is not the slightest shred of humor in this difficult, dazzling film about that unimaginable human tragedy. Life is full of humor, but there was no place for it in this story.
. I vividly recall seeing the trailer for this in the theatre, and it was three minutes of horrifically somber theatergoing. I turned to my movie pal John and whispered: “Well I’m certainly going out of my way to miss this one!” Then it won Best Foreign Language Film of 2015… At almost 60, I am quite used to eating my words. At this point, none of the five nominees in this most crucial category had played in my town except this one. I guessed, that since it was the only nominee in circulation, it would win the accolade, and in my Best Year Ever of Oscar prognostication, my hunch was correct. (Though now, from what I hear, I suspect that EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT would have been a contender for my heart had I been able to see it.) So when my local library bought a copy in my name, I had to share in the bounty.
. Though this film is exactly what is presented in the trailer, (the unremitting horror of Auschwitz in 1944), nothing really prepares you for the experience. We are thrown right in to the thick of the human depravity, when we are introduced to our hero Saul- a Hungarian Jew working for the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944. The unthinkable job of the Sonderkommando was to help the war criminals do their dirty work by herding the new train arrivals into the locker rooms where they were assured of a cup of tea after their “shower” and forced to disrobe. When they are moved into their death chamber and the doors are locked behind them for extermination, these workers picked through the belongings of the murdered to collect the spoils of war for their exterminators. At huge risk, a certain amount of the booty is syphoned off to bribe the guards. The Sonderkommando are marked with big red X’s across their backs, so they aren’t accidentally slaughtered with the rest. In exchange for performing this soul-crushing task, they were allowed to live just a little bit longer, until, because they knew too much damaging information, lists of names were drawn up to thin their ranks regularly. (In a brief sequence, we see that there are women Sonderkommandos too, sorting through the mountain of personal belongings their male counterparts collected.)
. When the prisoners become aware of a looming purge, they have no choice but to fight back, against nearly impossible odds. In all this mess, our traumatized hero finds a body in the jumble of corpses. He either recognizes this as his own son- or more likely, believes he does, and fixates on giving the boy a proper Jewish burial, even if it turns out to be at the cost of his own life.
. Every moment is absolutely riveting stuff, as we are claustrophobically locked into the unspeakably sad face of our tormented protagonist with very tight camera angles that place us directly into his experience. As it happens to Saul, it happens to us. The details are rancid icing on the poison cake: a young man survives his attempted murder, so he is quietly finished off… by a doctor. The ambient soundtrack in the camp immerses one in the experience of a sane person being suddenly incarcerated in a madhouse. There is always the angry curse of a rabid guard or an anguished cry of an innocent victim reverberating in the cold, hollow background. The effect is absolutely chilling, scarier than any horror film I’ve ever subjugated myself to!
. When our man Saul loses his shirt and gets mixed in with the doomed, you are right there with him- facing a lethal shower of killer gas! Will you survive? In a film like this- probably not.
. It’s perfect. The dizzying ending was perfect. SON OF SAUL is a perfectly perfect film… if (understandably!) lacking the tiniest shred of humor.
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