Son of Saul. A haunting compelling, utterly unflinching embarkation into the Hungarian and Jewish experiences of the Holocaust told by a debut Director and profoundly affecting delivery from the collective ensemble.
Writer Director: László Nemes. Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Sándor Zsótér. 107 mins. 15 cert.
This a bewildering audaciously confronting examination of the complex trail of events taking those involved into a zombie like zone which cannot be imagined except through desperate experience. It opens a door onto needed understanding in its intention.
It’s beyond comparison
The day I saw this film the report on Hillsborough when the Liverpool fans died of asphyxiation and crushing included a reaction from Bruce Grobbelaar. It was an FA Cup semi final against Nottingham Forest. Asked if he had seen anything like it, after witnessing the dead being brought onto the pitch and him using and directing those carrying bodies to use advertising boards he said it was probably the worst way to die. There was no blood, no shrapnel, no outward sign of death he recalled. There were around fifteen dead bodies he saw straight away being carried onto the pitch. It is as close we can get to imagining the horrific testimony of the Holocaust this film goes into in a telling, partially of the story of those conscripted to act as labourers to carry out the actions surrounding and including the extermination of many thousands in their camp.
1944 bordering on the invisible
The scale is the first striking thing you notice. The invisibility of this so far into the war is incredible. The almost industrial organisation and manipulation through fear and merciless enforcement put to work to carry out the Holocaust within the forests of Germany and here in South West Poland.
Saul is one of many Sonnerkommando whose job it is to perform the tasks of in the Auschwitz Concentration camp. He is seen firstly shepherding large numbers of people off trains rounded up by the Nazis and transported here. For this film I noticed that children were not asked to take part in these re-enactments though many thousands of children were among those who stepped of these very same trains. It was obviously too horrific a concept to inflict upon children for them to be involved.
Saul is marked by a red X on the rear of his overcoat and he continually wears a cap as it also enables him to be identified. He as a Hungarian is among many fellow men and women from that country who are ‘appropriated’ to carry out the most vile and dehumanising tasks such as disposal of the ‘pieces’ as a human body is known. They are separated in camps by gender also and he in his work is able to, or required to adapt to the work going on in different places. It may be in the gas chambers cleaning out the detritus of left over body waste. Or in the coal house where boilers are stoked to burn to ash the ‘pieces’. He is also able to visit through tasks given, the room where autopsies are performed. The living amongst the dead feel the dead speak to them somehow.
Intricate and intimate following Saul.
Through this film the camera, hand held and giving mostly head and upper body shots, follows Saul everywhere he goes making the story his exposure and link to all the various things that go on in this Concentration camp. To say it is replicated elsewhere is now known to magnify what we are viewing here. It is the piecing together of the pieces and those people who were alongside the destroyed people. The potency of the images are continually immersive and bring forward a view of the unimaginable. No senses except sight and sound are with us on this viewing encounter. No contact by touch, by smell, by taste is possible so the amplification through those present circumstances are portrayed through elements of imagery such as scarfs, masks in parts of the camp. By following Saul there is a contention being made of the redemptive journey of Saul to Paul in the biblical reading. How is that depicted? It is possibly through the wasteland depicted of life destroyed and treated meaning less and worthless. It is also conceivable that the redemptive journey the film takes is showing how whatever adversity faced Saul is on the journey to become Paul.
Sweeping along with God
Of all the prisoners in the camp around one hundred are deemed fit to carry out the arduous tasks. They have in effect a stay of execution by co-operating by carrying out assigned work. Otherwise they would be dead and join the others. What is taking place among them is the fulfillment on behalf of the many thousands that pass through this camp; there are one one day around three thousand sent to be massacred. The act is itself one of betrayal once they arrive. The fulfillment of the duties carried out is a defiance of will by the ones left to live in that they all believe in the creator and see this is the work of those who defy Gods word. The judgement on them not the prisoners sweeping up the remains and following instructions.
Despite this retention of belief which is fixed here on Saul and his journey, there come frequently others practicing in secret and discreetly their religion giving memorial those thos e just perished. There are Rabbi celebrants with distinctive appearances both Hungarian and Arabic Hebrew priests. They are a conduit through which this persevering faith is held and exemplified. It is entirely misunderstood by the German Command as baseless worthless and based on sentimental tokenistic beliefs. It is not seen as a vision or life force given and held by these disparate people whose Destiny is defined by their faith and Religion which has brought about their purge. Saul is not a Messiah but a prophet of a kind who has through one act which is central and the purpose of the journey undertaken that of giving a young boy a Jewish burial.
The young boy not yet a man, and be is the only child depicted, is the Son of Saul of the title. He has come across him in an extraordinary way as a boy left behind and dead to the world, seeing him as his own son. We learn he is the father but not from his wife who is in a separate part of the camp carrying out storage and domestic duties in the units were clothes valuables and the like are processed.
To achieve his aim which is commenced in the earlier part of the film he has to obtain the corpse of his son and to find a Rabbi to perform the burial. Both these tasks are seemingly impossible but he puts himself in jeopardy many times to carry out his wishes.
Principles and hope unextinguished
I thought during the early parts of the film each act taking him away or exposing hi,self bybnot acting as expected or normally he would be spotted very easily but for reasons unclear he navigated virtually ever occasion where it seems he is about to be caught carrying out something which does not fit in with his supposed assigned tasks he escapes the moment to move onto another act of courageous and seemingly foolish risks.
This film cuts into your psyche asking phenomenally difficult and prescient questions. Covering so many aspects of humanity we are stil struggling with the writer director, 38 year old Laszlo Nemes whose first feature film this is. For a relatively young man he has seen the necessity of putting uncomfortable to say the least of it an on screen examination real dialogue and politically hamstrung forums cannot go or have no possible common embrace, this film gives us a fully extentialist means to embrace the problems and narratives it again unfolds. It gives them uncompromising stature and directs the viewer into asking themselves to ask more and to confront their hidden constructs and dismantle barriers and walls they have and all have erected to keep these issues – here giving a contrasting compelling reflection on present visited miseries to the necessary wider forums we engage on.
The youth of Laszlo Nemes and his Hungarish nature have compelled him to use his inherently observation editorial and concious skills to provide this directly immersive viewpoint. We can only thank him for his foresight and insight and hope as he undoubtedly hopes it provides shape and form to current interpretations and avoiding the perils of reductive analysis. Such is the value of Cinema as an outlet to vent and confront unspeakable things.
28 April 2016
Son of Saul opens at QFT Belfast http://www.queensfilmtheatre.com on Friday 29 April until Thursday 12 May 2016.
Check above site and other information outlet’s for details of opening times.