The buzz at Cannes this week is about SON OF SAUL, a dark Hungarian film set at Auschwitz-Birkenau, that critics say is unlike any other Holocaust themed film in its approach to the subject. It has been called a masterpiece that changes the genre of Holocaust films.
It has a quasi-documentary feel that takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the rings of atrocious, death-camp Hell. Directed by first time feature filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, SON OF SAUL (SAUL FIA in Hungarian, original project name S.K.) is the story of Saul, a SonderKommando, one of the Jewish inmates who were forced to administer the Nazi death machine and clear the gruesome gas chambers of the dead. Nearly all Sonderkommandos were murdered by the Nazis after they were forced to do their captors’ bidding.
Viewers sees the drama through Saul’s verite eyes. There are no backstories for characters. Conversations, cries, whispers, and noise occur in Yiddish, German, and Hungarian at the edges of the film’s frame and offscreen. You experience the film viscerally through emotional long takes and not through one’s pure thoughtful intellect. Nemes is reaching for the soul of his viewers. At times, the action is out of focus; people are impersonal masses of human globs. Saul is seen up close, his shoulders and face take up the screen. The torture and deaths become common and after awhile, ignored. Like a unseen shark in Jaws, the director lets your imagination add to the level of fear, until perhaps, it becomes banal blurry background noise.
Saul must stay alive, and even if he can’t save other lives, he must find a way to retain his humanity is the midst of cruel existence, death. and atrocities. When the film opens, the camera, just inches from Saul’s face, follows him. It is chaos. Truckloads of weakened scared Jewish prisoners are arriving at Auschwitz. Someone is shouting in the showers for everyone to remove their clothes. Then Saul joins in to get them to undress. It isn’t a shower. It is a gas chamber. It is Saul’s job to search for valuables, and to clean the gas chambers. Then, while disposing of a corpse, he sees a body that might be his son. Saul needs to find a rabbi. It is dangerous to look, but it is a humane act.Nemes, 38, who lost ancestors in the Holocaust, is the son of Andras Jelles, an award winning Hungarian director. Nemes enrolled in NYU’s Tisch Film School’s directing program in Manhattan, but left after a year, since the program did not meet his needs.
Saul is played by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet who resides in New York City. He appears in nearly every scene of the film. He told Cannes audiences that “The only way to remain sane and live this type of life [at Auschwitz] was to cease to be a human being, to be detached from your emotions. The challenge of the character [of Saul] was to dance in a very, very small area, in a very minimalist way.”
Nemes does not make it easy for viewers. He did not want to make a simple story of good versus bad. He doesn’t avoid those who ask whether Sonderkommandos were victims or part of the perpetrators. In a Cannes press conference he said, “The safe path for the viewer is for us to know where good and bad lies, where the guilt lies, where the bad guys lie.” He did not want to let the film reassure viewers or send signals about good and bad. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely said that they attempted to “show things that are not possible to show” and to “exclude everything that is not fundamental to our story.”
The film has enough interest to perhaps win Cannes’ Palme d’Or. Sony Pictures Classics has bought SON OF SAUL for its American distribution.
In the clip below, SAUL searches for a rabbi, for a “son” he needs to save.
At 13:00 minutes, GEZA responds to press query about SK’s. He PASSIONATELY defends their lives as victims. He criticizes Primo Levi for his opinions of the Sonderkommandos.