Just when you thought there could never be another movie with an original view of the Holocaust, up pops unknown rookie Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes with “Son of Saul”.
Original view, I kid you not. Forget the likes of “Sophie's Choice” (1982, starring Meryl Streep), and especially forget – however hard it may be – epics like “Schindler's List” (1993, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley), along with any others you may admire on Ranker's Holocaust list of films – all 242 of them.
Sure, the best of those leave you aghast, wondering if you'd ever see life the same again: “Son of Saul” just leaves you smashed, drained and possibly unhinged. The others all have a story, with a beginning, an end and ups and downs in between – they all offer scenes and characters of hope in amongst the misery. “Son of Saul” is fast-paced, relentless, full of chaos, death, confusion, terror, anguish, deception. With characters speaking in their native tongues, the script is a veritable babble, from whispered Hungarian and barked German orders to screams in obscure Yiddish dialects – all making it a strain to follow, despite the subtitles. Seriously, it should come with a health warning: do not watch if suffering from depression.
How else is it different? For a start, “Son of Saul” is about one of the tetchiest aspects of the Holocaust – the Sonderkommando.
After noting the psychological trauma suffered by SS soldiers in the death squads early in the war, the Nazis hand-picked newly arrived Jewish deportees for the dirty work in the killing factory of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thus it was their own kind who herded the crowds off the trains, via the changing rooms and into the “showers”, and who feverishly disentangled the twisted, distorted corpses, before shoving them into the ovens.
To a constant refrain of “schnell, schnell” and for the first time on screen, the wretched lot of the Sonderkommando is the principal background to the plot: and this we all witness in “Son of Saul”.
Except we don't, at least not quite. For most of the gruesome scenes – and that is most of the film – the camera focuses on Saul Auslander (played by Geza Rohrig, another Hungarian you've never heard of) or one of his supporting actors, while the agony behind is a blur, our understanding helped only by the tortured off-screen dialogues.
All this is more than symbolic. As revealed in diaries unearthed at Auschwitz after the war, like troops in the first Nazi death squads, so it was with the Sonderkommandos: to survive, they fought to blank out the horrors that not only surrounded them, but were part and parcel of their active, daily deeds.
The plot, too, is different. Saul, probably as part of his own survival mechanism, finds a rare survivor of a gassing whom he takes to be his own son. Saul watches as the youth is finally put to death and selected for special medical examination – the Nazis want to know the secret of his biological endurance.
The rest of the film is about Saul and his single-minded quest to find a rabbi and give his ‘son’ a decent Jewish burial. To achieve this, he persuades the (Jewish) doctor not to dissect the corpse and becomes embroiled in a (historically real) plot to blow up a crematorium, using his Sonderkommando status (and some bribery) to visit even the women's quarters as a runner for a precious package of gunpowder.
Despite losing the explosives, the operation goes ahead, and Saul, with his ‘son’ over his shoulder, escapes with a rabbi into the woods surrounding the camp. The rest you'll have to see, suffice to say that, after the brown-black-grey scenes for most of the movie, the green spring foliage on the trees and birdsong is a relief, but that Nazi search squads, with dogs, are not far behind.
With this nightmare movie, Nemes, along with co-script writers Clara Royer, have surely achieved success beyond their wildest dreams.
“Son of Saul”, costing a mere $1.5m and with a mostly semi-pro cast (Geza Rohrig, when not on set, doubles as a poet), has won a string of awards, from the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2015 to an Oscar as the “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2016 Academy Awards.
Laszlo Rajk, the Hungarian architect who designed the set after studying original blueprints of the Birkenau crematoria, sees the success as a natural result of Nemes' innovative skills. “It's a new film language what they created, what we created... it is not descriptive, it's not concentrating on the environment, but we still understand the functioning of this death factory, and this is a very interesting phenomenon in film making,” he tells bne IntelliNews in an interview.
For Rajk, the film, though set in 1944 Nazi-occupied Poland, has a vital contemporary message, most particularly for Central and Eastern Europe today. “I think one very important thing is that seemingly, dictatorships are like clockwork They are rigid, there is law and order, yet this movie [shows] in Auschwitz, the death camp, it turns out there there was unbelievable corruption, and absolute chaos, with the chimneys collapsing and malfunctioning,” he says.
“Especially nowadays, in this refugee crisis, when people seek more and more law and order, for me, this movie proves that this is not the solution. If you stiffen a dictatorship, or systems, it automatically blows up into corruption and chaotic situations,” he concludes. Rajk, the son of an infamous Stalinist minister who became a victim of an early communist show trial, and himself a leading dissident in 70s and 80s Hungary, has a lifetime's experience with dictatorships.
Not all would agree with his analysis, however. Florence La Bruyere, a French journalist and film critic, says Nemes' approach to directing and cinematography was pioneered by John Cassavetes in “Shadows” as long ago as 1959.
Be that as it may, and regardless of his future creations, Nemes has created a phenomenal work. Just before the screening, a Scandinavian diplomat at the Irish embassy's St Patrick's Day reception asked if I had realised that watching “Son of Saul” would ruin what was, arguably, the first spring day of the year.
He was right. I hadn't. I left the cinema disoriented and drained of energy. Fortunately, it was for a good cause.