Wesley Emblidge ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor
Ostensibly, there are three characters you can follow in a Holocaust film. There’s the Nazi, who might be redeemed or may remain an antihero. There’s the interned or hiding Jew, who we watch in pain and try to understand. There may also be the bystander, who watches the war without a stake in either party. Hungarian director László Nemes finds a fascinating mix of these three kinds of characters in his devastating new film, Son of Saul. The titular Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of a Sonderkommando, for which the film gives us the dictionary definition at the start: “a group of prisoners assigned to collect belongings and dispose of the bodies of other prisoners who had died or been killed.” Neither a hateable Nazi nor a sympathetic Jew, Saul is a character we aren’t sure how to feel about, which is just one of the innovative ways he shows us this oft-tread tragedy.
The film itself takes place in October 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau (nicknamed “The Death Factory”) and imagines the events that led to an eventual revolt in the camp that did occur that month. Saul isn’t concerned with the revolt, however; after we see him lead his first group of prisoners into the gas chambers, he takes it upon himself to give a proper burial to a young boy who may or may not have been his son. That narrative thrust definitely feels somewhat trite in trying to get us to sympathize with him, but the film has such an immediacy to it that you don’t really have time to be bothered.
Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (who also did great work on this year’s James White) shoot almost the entire film in long take medium shots of Saul, staying with him and just barely glimpsing the horrors happening around him. This gives us a sense of what it’s like to be there physically, while also helping us understand the speed and efficiency at which the camps moved. Things move so quickly, it’s as if there isn’t even time to stop and think about what’s happening; half the time Saul is being literally thrown into different tasks.
Schindler’s List, likely the most “mainstream” Holocaust film, showed us a man reckoning with the horrors and how he tried to make a difference. Son of Saul makes us reckon with it ourselves, throwing us into the camps alongside Saul. Yet Saul isn’t just an empty vessel for us either; he’s a character making fascinating morally questionable decisions throughout that force us to confront what we’d do. Should Saul be assisting the Nazis with this evil just to be able to live longer? Son of Saul asks, would you?
Overall Grade: B+