There are certain subjects in film that I have kind of complicated feelings towards. Some subjects, while enormously important and deserving of analysis through fiction and non-fiction, tend to be used very manipulatively. Things like slavery, 9/11, or the Holocaust are immensely monumental subjects that really should be used in storytelling, because we should never forget the darkest moments in humanity. However, it’s also incredibly easy to use subjects like these to be emotionally manipulative. They’re such harrowing times, and have a built in tragedy that creators can use to instantly get you emotionally involved in the story, sometimes letting them skimp on storytelling because hey, you’re already invested. There’s also the fact that creators often take these subjects, and use them to make heart-warming, life-affirming movies, despite the fact that the majority of people involved in these events didn’t exactly have good outcomes. I absolutely loved the movie 12 Years a Slave, but it seemed designed by pull on every single one of my heartstrings, while at the last moment giving us a happy ending, despite the fact that so many countless other similar stories ended in tragedy. It totally makes sense to me, people generally don’t want to watch a movie that ends on a complete down note, because that kind of bummer will really sit with a person, and kind of ruin their day. We prefer to think about slavery or the Holocaust stories as having a happy ending, because in the end things did get better. The Holocaust ended and slavery was banned, so these stories ended with happy endings! But statistically there were vastly more people involved in these kinds of stories that had horrible, depressing ends, and yet it’s so rare to see a movie where we go with the realistic and soul-crushing ending that’s more likely. And look what we have here, a movie that’s going with that lesser used model of Holocaust stories, Son of Saul.
Son of Saul, or Saul fia as it’s known in its original language, is a Hungarian film that has a premise that’s already immensely depressing. We follow a man named Saul, who is a Hungarian Jewish man forced to work in the Auschwitz concentration camp as what’s known as a Sonderkommando. What is a Sonderkommando? Well they were Jewish prisoners in the camp who were forced to do menial labor in the camp, including actually working the gas chambers and crematoriums that killed so many of their brethren. Yep, that was a thing that actually happened, which I feel like I had heard of, but certainly never would have imagined that someone would have the guts to make a story about such a thing. And this movie did not pull its punches. It’s one of the saddest, bleakest, and more fascinatingly filmed movies I’ve ever seen. But let’s talk about the plot first.
The movie follows Saul for a day and half as he works in Auschwitz. He’s clearly been at this for a while, and seems pretty numb to the whole ordeal. But when he’s dealing with the corpses of people killed in the gas chamber, they find one boy that actually survived. He brings the boy to a doctor, who kills the boy and tells Saul to bring him to a room to get an autopsy. But while doing that Saul decides that the boy is his illegitimate son. Now, every other character in the movie tell Saul that he doesn’t have a son, but he keeps insisting that he does, and this kid is him, so I’m really not sure what the truth is. This boy may actually be his son, or he just may be a sign of Saul finally breaking. But whatever the truth is, Saul makes the decision that this boy needs a proper Jewish burial, not a trip to the ovens, and makes it his singular mission to get the boy the burial he deserves. Thus he begins a quest to find a willing rabbi among the prisoners who will perform the proper rituals.
While Saul begins his mission several of the other Sonderkommando’s begin planning rebellion against the Nazis, and start working on ways to escape and kill the guards. They attempt to get Saul in on the plan, but he really doesn’t seem to care about the escape, and is way more interested in the burial. But he does help them with a plan to photograph atrocities in exchange for information about rabbis. He learns about a rabbi called the Renegade who works for another Sonderkommando unit, so he just sneaks off into another unit, and somehow makes it to the guy, only to realize that he doesn’t want anything to do with Saul, and ends up getting executed. This freaks Saul out, but he still doesn’t give up, and heads back to his camp. And when he gets there he finds a new batch of Jews who have arrived in the camp, and while they’re being led into the woods to be executed, Saul finds one who claims to be a rabbi. So Saul saves the guy, and brings him back to the camp with him. But when Saul gets back, he finds out that more than likely his whole unit is probably going to get gassed soon, so things are really getting down to the wire. And just on time, the rest of his Sonderkommando’s decide that now it the time, and they begin their attack on the Nazis. Several of the men escape, including Saul and the rabbi, with the child’s corpse in tow. But once they get outside, Saul begin digging a grave, while asking the rabbi to start the ceremony. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes evident that this guy isn’t actually a rabbi, and he had lied in order to get Saul to save him, and just ends up running away. But Saul still doesn’t give up, and ends up following the guys across the river, still with the corpse. But things still aren’t as bad as they can be, so Saul begins having trouble getting across the river, and the corpse ends up getting washed away from him. The other guys drag him out of the river, even though it’s pretty clear that Saul would be fine with just dying at that point. But he trudges along with the guys as they end up hiding in a barn before striking out to find some Polish resistance fighters. But the movie wasn’t dark enough yet, because as they’re sitting in the barn, Saul sees a small farm boy peeking in, who then runs off before passing a squad of German soldiers, who then kill everyone in the barn.
Yikes. What a depressing movie. And it was extremely worth it. We get so used to depressing movies having happy endings in America, that it was genuinely shocking that this movie stayed so bleak throughout. I just kept thinking that they were going to give Saul at least something to hold onto. But no. Literally everything goes wrong, and everything is taken from him. Which, while an aberration in movies, was probably a much more common occurrence in reality. This movie was so incredibly realistic and dark, that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was shot, and at least where I saw it projected, on 35 mm film, which gave it that scratchy, lived-in feel that I really love, and even had a strange aspect ratio that kept the movie tight and claustrophobic. The performances were great and incredibly believable, creating some truly monstrous characters. But I think the best thing about this movie, and the thing that gets brought up the most in regards to it, is the cinematography. The movie was pretty much solely shot with the camera in about a two foot radius of Saul at all times. Pretty much every shot had Saul directly in the foreground, either in closeup of his face, or more commonly, hovering directly behind his shoulder, like we were piloting him the whole time. It made for an incredibly intimate experience where you begin to almost feel like you are Saul. And they took full advantage of that camera-work, even blurring out the background at times, so that Saul was the only thing in focus, as if we were to see that Saul is so used to the horrors of the concentration camp that he doesn’t even see them anymore. We see piles of corpses frequently in the movie, but almost every time they’re blurred out, because Saul has seen them so many times they’re commonplace, and he’s doing his best not to even notice them. Really the only quibble I have about the movie is that the subtitle situation was a little strange. So many languages are being spoke in this movie, but they all receive the same subtitles, which led to me not realizing that there were other languages being spoke. I don’t speak German or Hungarian, so I couldn’t figure out why Saul wasn’t reacting to the Nazis speaking to him at first, before I realized that he just didn’t speak German well. Honestly, I feel like the movie could be even better if they removed the subtitles for every non-Hungarian line, making most of the dialogue in the movie incomprehensible, which is what Saul would be feeling. You would be just as lost as he was, struggling to understand what’s going on, and not knowing that some things are about to happen.
The last thing I want to talk about is how powerful I found the central premise. So often in American cinema we look at things like the Holocaust, and focus on huge stories. In a Hollywood Holocaust movie we would see much crazier things happening. Hitler would be personally visiting the camp, or the Allies would have come bursting in at the last moment to save everyone, or something like that. Or we would have had Saul find his illegitimate son alive and they bond, or some terrible crap like that that would be meant to find the bright side in tragedy. And I think the most brilliant thing about his movie is that there are more Hollywood plots going on in the background, like the rebellion thing, but Saul doesn’t give a crap about any of that. He doesn’t want to break out and get freedom, he doesn’t want revenge against the Nazis who have ruined his life, he just wants to do one last human, decent thing for someone. Who cares if the kid is actually his son or not, that’s irrelevant, all he wants to do it make sure that just one of these people gets a proper burial and the respect that they deserve. And honestly, that’s the most beautiful and heart-breaking thing I could imagine, and this movie handled it perfectly.
Son of Saul was written by László Nemes and Clara Royer, directed by László Nemes, and released by Mozinet, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk