It turns out that murdering six million Jews takes a lot of work. Herding them off the trains; persuading them that the gas chambers are really shower rooms; removing the bodies after the killing; burning them; getting rid of the ashes; cleaning everything up for the next load.
All this hard work in the concentration camps was done by Sonderkommando (“special commandos”)–able-bodied Jewish men who, after a few months of grueling work, were themselves murdered. (The women Sonderkommando were also usefully employed by, for example, sorting the belongings that the Jews brought with them.)
Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s “Son of Saul” relentlessly captures the life of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian prisoner who, among the newly dead bodies in the “Krema” (crematorium) where he works, finds that of a boy he takes to be his own son. Whether the boy really is Saul’s son is never clarified. It hardly matters. Saul steals the body (from the dissection table, where he’s about to be autopsied) and resolves to find a rabbi to say Kaddish and give the child a proper burial. In doing so, he endangers a plan by his fellow prisoners to stage an escape, but Saul’s resolve can’t be moved.
“Son of Saul” opens with an out-of-focus shot of greenery but soon switches to closeups of the main character, and from there is told entirely through his point of view, often in more closeups. Saul is brisk and expressionless. We learn nothing of his background; in the camp, a person’s background doesn’t count for anything. We see him interacting with the other men, sometimes with their captors. The place (though the film doesn’t expressly say this) is Auschwitz; the time 1944.
The atmosphere of the camp is as close to hell as one can imagine: constant noise (no background music here), filth, fires, mud. The men live in what look like caves rather than barracks (I doubt the authenticity of this detail). You rarely see them eating and never sleeping. The work is gruelling and never-ending. Naked dead bodies–Stücke–“pieces,” in Nazi jargon–are everywhere. Things are going on in the background: some prisoners taking pictures with secret cameras; others plotting the rebellion. But our focus is always on Saul and his mission.
In the long list of Holocaust films, “Son of Saul” stands out as among the most uncompromising, a fictionalized version of some episodes in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” parts of which served as Nemes’ inspiration. It won the Grand Prize at Cannes and is Hungary’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Oscar.