Son of Saul
Released: May 2015
Opening scene of the film: In 1944, Saul Ausländer helps lead men, women, and children into a train that takes them to Auschwitz, assists getting them all into the death shower room, listens outside to the panic occurring inside the walls, and then searches through the clothing of those just exterminated to find anything of value to give to the Nazis. Next, the movie starts to become depressing.
Saul is no evil Nazi guard though, but is instead a Sonderkommando member, a Hungarian Jew forced at the threat of death to assist with the malevolent operations of the concentration camp. Up front, we are told these prisoners won’t last in their jobs more than a few months before being exterminated themselves. It is jarring to see Saul intensely staring into space as he listens to the screams of the victims, waiting for them to finish, as if he has heard this more than a few times before. Following the shower, the “work unit” must drag out the corpses and scrub the floors. However, one boy survives—a barely breathing ten-year old, gasping and moaning as he lies on a table. A Nazi “doctor” ends his suffering by holding the boy’s nose and mouth closed as Saul continues with his ghastly tasks nearby. It is all very grim.
Turns out, it seems, that the boy is Saul’s illegitimate son, and he spends the rest of the movie doing what he can to get the boy a proper religious burial. This goal, however, is somewhat at odds with the rest of his Sonderkommando—they want to revolt, or at least smuggle photos of the camp to the outside world in order to reveal the Nazi atrocities. Saul is willing to cooperate with that, so long as he can get the boy buried. It seems to be the smallest redemption for this man forced at gunpoint to scrub the blood of his fellow Jews off the shower floors.
The film spends all its time with Saul, with a camera following right behind him, not unlike the scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as Henry Hill and Karen walk through the back of the restaurant to their table. The big red X on the back of Saul’s shirt is his temporary stay of execution, letting everyone know he is not to be put in the gas shower or shot into the pits just yet. The camera also holds on Saul’s intense stare-downs with his co-prisoners for 10 or 15 seconds at a time. It is as though there is something not fully disclosed to the viewer, some past understanding or anger. We may not know exactly what he's thinking all the time, but we know these are men and women going through the same hell together.
Son of Saul possibly should be regarded as an important film in the telling of the Holocaust, another layer providing a better understanding of what went on in those death camps. But I can’t say I enjoyed it—noteworthy films like Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and even the 1970’s TV series Holocaust gave us glints of hope, and characters we could root for. Son of Saul is gray and violent and dismal, presenting perhaps the most repugnant of situations in a death camp—being forced to assist with the murders of one’s own people.
Stanley Kubrick once remarked about Schindler’s List: "Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't." If that is the measure, then Son of Saul is truly a movie about the Holocaust.
The Title: Saul fia. Before I knew what the movie was about, I kept mistakenly thinking of it as, alternatively, Better Call Saul or Son of Sam. But never Better Call Son of Sam. Though I'd go see that.
Culture: Certainly an important depiction of Auschwitz, though I can’t say I recognized much that could be considered uniquely Hungarian.
Agenda danger: Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably wouldn’t like the message here, but most people won’t have a problem with the filmmakers putting the National Socialists in a bad light.
Best Picture that year: Spotlight
Rating: I wouldn’t recommend this one for a first date, unless you are hoping there won’t be a second one. That said, this a significant work of historical record.