Humanity found in ritual amid death camp horror



Son of Saul (M). Director: László Nemes. Starring: Géza Röhrig. 107 minutes

In the history of the Second World War and the deathly screed of the Final Solution, the Sonderkommando cuts a pitiable figure. These Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz and other death camps were forced to perform the logistics surrounding mass murder — the carting and disposal of dead flesh. Though patently victims, they were viewed by some as collaborators. This left the few who survived the camps with a moral burden that was part and parcel of their specific trauma.

Son of Saul — a Hungarian production, whose Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this week is but the latest in a long trail of critical accolades — provides an immersive and impressionistic extrapolation of this ethical and actual horror. It takes place over the course of the day and a half leading up to the revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz in 1944, during which one of the camp's crematoriums was partly destroyed and three SS men were killed.

Geza Rohrig in Son of SaulUnderpinning the experimental approach taken by first-time feature filmmaker Nemes, these sensational events form the backdrop rather than the focus of the film; for the most part its hero Saul (Röhrig) becomes caught up in them only incidentally. As they unfold he is preoccupied with an unlikely personal matter: he has taken one of the latest victims of the gas chamber to be his illegitimate son, and seeks a rabbi among his fellow prisoners to help provide the boy with a proper Jewish burial.

In a further act of effective experimentation, Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély use a narrow 1.375:1 aspect ratio frame to taper the viewer's gaze towards the face and shoulders of Saul, as he carries out his gruesome duties and pitches in with the resistance efforts as a way to gain mobility around the camp. The environment itself is caught in glimpses and in the vast, evocative soundscape; the sound design reportedly took five months, layering sound with human voices in eight languages.

While there are questions regarding whether the boy is, in fact, the 'son of Saul', these turn out to be marginal. More pertinent is the juxtaposition of Saul's recognition of the dignity and meaning found in cultural rituals surrounding death, with the pragmatic, depersonalised 'rituals' of the Final Solution. Thus the sight of Saul prayerfully scratching out a grave in soil is a direct counterpoint to the image of corpses being heaved into a fire pit, or heaps of human ashes being dutifully shovelled into a river.

As such the ordinary humanity of a single Sonderkommando is revealed as a meaningful riposte to the extraordinary inumanity of the Holocaust.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Son of Saul, László Nemes, Géza Röhrig, Second World War, Holocaust



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Death and the (young) maiden

  • Barry Gittins
  • 02 March 2016

This year we faced the prospect of having Wolfgang, our 16-year-old apricot Spoodle, euthanised. This was sad for me, my wife, and our son. But for our daughter, entering her first year of high school, it presented a looming disaster. Mark Twain is purported to have said that 'the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.' Timidity equals preoccupation with mortality? No disrespect to Samuel, but it's unlikely he shared that gem with his daughters.


Homeless truths from an agent against poverty

  • Brian Doyle
  • 09 March 2016

The tall man had worked for the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence for years, and long ago had lost any illusions about the overarching nobility of people who were hammered and lost and helpless against addictions, diseases, crisis and tragedy. I asked him about the most wonderful people he'd met, and he told me some amazing stories, and then I asked him about the worst, and he told me some horrifying stories, and then his face twisted and he told me about the worst of the worst.


We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review