“Son of Saul” has to be one of the most harrowing movies ever made about the Holocaust.
The emotions are so complicated, the scenes so horrifying, that it’s hard to watch at points.
The movie from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes stars Geza Rohring as Auslander Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish men who have been forced to help the Nazis exterminate people in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
Saul knows exactly what’s going on, as we watch him tell fellow Jews to take off their clothes and enter the showers. We see the naked people walking into the showers as they’re reassured that they’ll become clean and get a good meal with they come back out. But when the door to the showers slams shut, Saul and other Sonderkommando members quietly go about gathering the clothes as they hear screams from inside the gas chamber.
After the dire deed is done, the door is opened, and the Sonderkommando members split up into groups, with some carrying bodies to the crematorium and others wiping up the mess left behind on the shower floor.
Saul is stoic throughout these horrific events. But he faces a crisis of humanity when he realizes that one young boy has not died in the gas chamber. He watches as they pull his limp, naked body out of the pile and carry him into an operating room, where he’s smothered and scheduled for an autopsy. Saul thinks that the boy is his son — a shattering thought, of course. Other Jewish workers point out that Saul didn’t have a son. But Saul says the son was from outside his marriage.
It doesn’t much matter whether the boy is literally the son of Saul. It’s clearly a metaphor — a representation of Saul’s final attempt to find some sort of salvation amid the horror. So he has one of the Jewish doctors in the autopsy room hide the boy’s body, so that Saul can retrieve it and give it a proper burial, with Kaddish — a Jewish mourning ritual.
The problem is: Saul can’t find a rabbi to say Kaddish. And it’s not quite easy to drag a boy’s body under the nose of the Nazis and have a proper burial. But Saul persists in his dream.
His efforts to find a rabbi lead to yet another mass extermination — this time the mass shooting of prisoners, where their bodies are dumped in a shallow trench. Saul finds a rabbi among them, and then risks his life to save the rabbi and take him back to the site of the boy’s body for a proper burial. But amid the chaos, we see mass shootings, hear the screaming and watch the desperation of all involved.
Saul’s mission for a proper burial, however, brings him into conflict with fellow Sonderkommando, who have been secretly stashing away gunpowder for a rebellion at the concentration camp. They fear that Saul’s scheming over the body will be discovered and that their rebellion will be thwarted. As Saul is told by one friend, “You care more for the dead than the living.”
It’s a devastating comment, but there’s a definite nobility in Saul’s quest — even if it seems impossible.
The director makes interesting choices in developing his story. The aspect ratio is not typical and looks almost vertical, even though it’s not. It’s similar to the tightened screen shots of last year’s “Mommy,” from French-Canadian Xavier Dolan, who’s on this year’s Cannes jury.
The aesthetic choice puts the focus on people’s faces, rather than on the wide-screen scenes. And it’s a wise choice, making the horror much more personal. A wide-screen approach might make the whole movie unbearable to watch.
Sometimes, however, we should be forced to watch — and remember.
“Son of Saul” is one of the leading early contenders for the Palme d’Or, but the festival is still young.