This review was published in May 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.
There are now so many excellent films that deal with the topics of WWII, the Holocaust and the Nazi extermination camps that it is rare to see one and truly be left with the feeling of new insight and further shock. László Nemes’ debut feature-film, however, does this and a thousand things more. Son of Saul depicts a side of Auschwitz that is given comparatively little airtime by the film industry: that of the prisoners who worked in the gas chambers, the Geheimnisträgers – “secret-bearers”. Forced to prepare the chambers and clear the bodies from them of their own countrymen, sometimes their own relatives, there was also another price these prisoners paid for being exposed to the intimate secrets of mass extermination. The Nazis feared they would find a way to confide in other inmates, so each group of Geheimnisträgers was killed and replaced every three to four months. Often, their first job was to clear the bodies of those they were replacing .
Over one and a half days, the film follows one of these inmates, Saul. Whilst working, he believes he has discovered the body of his son. He becomes fixated on finding a rabbi, and obtaining a proper burial for his son’s body. Saul has to choose between pursuing this task, and helping the uprising being planned among the workers who have realised their working time is up and their own extermination is imminent.
Shot mainly using facial close-ups, or from over the back of Saul’s right shoulder, Son of Saultranslates a horror that is often difficult to relate to, due to its sheer scale, into a personal and focalised tale. From behind his shoulder, piles of dead naked bodies blur in the background of Saul’s peripheral vision. Torn apart by their dichotomous half-worker, half-inmate identities, Làszló adroitly conveys the tense atmosphere among the Geheimnisträgers through focalised cinematography and long, continuous shots as they interact amongst each other.
When an overheard conversation could lead to an execution, the film’s speech is sparse but plenty of meaning is conveyed through the intense stares and glances from Géza Röhrig and his co-actors. Although devoid of words, this world is not silent; rather than shocking with dramatic gunshots and the cries of the gassed victims, these sounds are ongoing in the background, until we realise we have become as shocked into immunity as the Geheimnisträgers would have been themselves. In a scene where the background fires of burning bodies highlight the edges of Saul’s silhouette as he clutches on to his rabbi, the fantastic filming and conveyance of human nature and faith reach their crux. Excepting a few moments where Saul’s actions seem implausibly unnoticed by the guards, every minute of this film is worth watching.