"Son of Saul is a fiction in many respects, but the fiction is the truth." – Claude Lanzmann
Saul Auslander has been reduced to a drone, a Sonderkammando who has become the hand of the Nazi killing machine, bled of his empathy, compassion… and hope. But does he still retain his humanity?
Director Laszlo Nemes has crafted a masterpiece by pulling focus so tightly that we experience almost everything solely from one limited perspective which eschews all Holocaust tropes. Nemes and his DP Matyas Erdely set the frame limits at Academy ratio 1:37:1 and forbid any establishing shots. There are very few medium long shots and when the camera pans left or right it quickly focuses once again upon Saul’s visage. The depth of field is so limited that we never quite focus upon obviously horrific events. Nemes refuses to exploit the Holocaust: there are no lingering close-ups of piles of bodies, overt crying and wailing victims or murdered children in red jackets. All of these things (sans red jacket) exist in this film but are rendered as routine and peripheral.
Nemes like his protégé Bela Tarr utilizes extreme long takes and a roving camera often following his protagonist from behind while walking or running. Erdely masterly frames everything in close-up to medium close-up even while Saul is in motion. And the entire film is in motion as Saul constantly moves and works, unable to stop for fear of being singled out for execution. As powerful as the imagery is (even the images we tangentially perceive) it’s the sound design that is the building block of the realism. Dozens of disparate languages and dialects haunt the film often without a visual source. Or the chugging of arriving trains or the ventilation system of the crematorium as it pumps out the fatal pesticide. Neither the crack of gunfire nor the rumbles of explosions are exaggerated and even the awful scene of flamethrowers burning victims alive has a subdued brittle realism. This is an anti-Hollywood film. This is an anti-SCHINDLER’S LIST film.
The film opens out-of-focus until a character (who we learn is our protagonist) walks towards the camera and stops in close-up. Without an establishing shot it’s chaotic and confusing and difficult to tell what is happening. This becomes the structure for the entire movie. But we soon understand that Saul is shepherding a new trainload of Jews to the crematorium. As he helps these confused victims undress and neatly hang up their clothes and organize their belongings, we begin to directly experience the cruelly efficient Nazi killing apparatus: most victims believe this to be a shower and are encouraged that they will come back out to retrieve their belongings. When the crematorium door is closed and the generators thump to life we don’t hear as much as feel the bulk of the dying victims crushing one another, pushing towards the door, climbing upon each other in a gruesome frenzy to survive. We only see Saul’s blank expression as he stands by the door waiting to pull out the corpses and load them onto the elevators towards the ovens. And here is the vilest evil of the Holocaust: in making the victims complicit in their own destruction.
Nemes refuse to condemn or judge Saul or any other Sonderkammando; he is only depicting the acts. He is humanizing the Jews in these “Special Units” without making any excuse for their behavior or allowing melodrama to intrude for an emotional reconciliation. Saul remains quite impassive and difficult to read. Nemes underscores this at the very beginning of the film (even before the opening shot) when the text states that the word Sonderkammando is a German word. This divorces their title from Jewish authority: that is, they are labelled by the Nazis and have become what they have been forced to do.
The plot of the film is beside the point. Saul discovers a boy who briefly survived the Zyklon B before being murdered by Joseph Mengele (who is never explicitly named). He believes that this dead boy is his son. He is driven by the need to bury this boy with a Jewish ceremony and keep it from the ovens. We wonder if it is indeed his son as other prisoners dispute this telling Saul, he never had children. In the face of this seemingly unending tragedy, we also become curious as to why this one act is so important to him. Saul’s search for a Rabbi drives the narrative but these motivations are not the focus of the film: Nemes wants us to see how this film is about the Holocaust not what happens (because we know what happens as we know what Saul’s fate must ultimately be). Nemes creates tension about a potential revolt and the need of a smuggled package, but our expectations are once again subverted.
Saul is among a group of prisoners who escape the camp but are tracked down to a decaying barn in the middle of a forest. The group-speak promises to join the Polish Resistance and continue the fight against the Nazi tyranny but Saul is focused upon one thing: the ghostly child tentatively framed in the doorway. And in a striking departure the narrative exits Saul’s perspective, and we follow the child running through the woods until he’s grabbed by German soldiers. Pushed aside, the child runs through the thick woods as gunshots echo in the distance. Saul has met his death with a sublime smile, his humanity somehow intact.
Final Grade: (A+)