Laszlo Nemes’s Auschwitz-based film has picked up several awards, since winning the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, including the best foreign language movie at the 2016 Oscars; and there’s no doubting the uncompromising, gut-wrenching nature of the film. But the bleak setting and barbaric behaviour exhibited throughout the story make this not so much a movie to enjoy as to endure.
Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a member of the notorious Sonderkommando, the unit of Jewish captives who worked alongside their Nazi jailers to help expedite the deaths of millions of their fellow prisoners. The reason they agreed to do this? To extend their own lives for a few more months, because they knew with a dread certainty that every so often, large numbers of them would be executed and fresh prisoners enlisted to their ranks. Going about this thankless business one day, Saul chances upon a dying boy, somebody he believes to be his own illegitimate son. Seized by the overpowering notion that the child must have a decent burial at all costs, Saul sets about finding a rabbi to perform the necessary ceremony, risking his life (and the lives of many of his closest friends, who are in the closing stages of mounting an escape plan and need Saul to help with their plans). In his desperate scramble to honour his dead son, Saul is flirting with disaster.
Son of Saul is a claustrophobic movie, shot in an almost square frame, the camera following Saul from scene to scene as he moves frantically through a series of hellish locations that could have emerged from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The hideous daily grind of his work is depicted (thankfully) largely as a barely glimpsed blur, a pile of heaped bodies here, a roadside execution there – somehow not seeing it in detail makes it far worse than it already is. And it’s about as bad as it can get. This is immersive cinema at its most distressing and the very futility of what Saul is trying to achieve oppresses you, even as you sit there, wanting to look away, but somehow unable to do it. At a time when the world seems to be moving inexorably back to the kind of conditions that nurtured the Nazi cause in the first place, these events are doubly distressing.
I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it – but I can see exactly why it was made and why it should be seen by as many people as possible. Films like this remind us of the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink. If the journey is an unpleasant one, it nonetheless needs to be undertaken, in the vague hope that the human race might come to it’s collective senses and sure that such things are never allowed to happen again.