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Harrowing Son of Saul Journeys Through the Hellish Circles of a Nazi Death Camp

The movie is deservingly favored to win the foreign-language Oscar.
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How might a person cope with life in hell? When unspeakable horrors occur daily all around you, and you’ve been made complicit in their execution, it must be hard to say whether the dead or the living are the lucky ones. It must be hard to say what “dead” and “alive” truly mean.

In their World War II death camps, the Nazis forced some, mostly Jews, to aid in leading others to the gas chambers and to dispose of their victims’ remains. Known as the Sonderkommando (“special unit,” a euphemism), these prisoners typically were kept living only a few extra months before being slaughtered themselves.

The achievement of Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul is how every shot helps us to feel the psychological box in which the Sonderkommando must have kept themselves in order to maintain a sense of sanity amidst the seemingly never-ending parade of torture and murder into which their world had transformed.

The story is told from the perspective of one of the Sonderkommando, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig). As Virgil led Dante through the Inferno, we follow Saul to each hellish corner of the camp: hauling bodies to be burned, shoveling ashes into a lake, watching Jews dragged out to the forest to be shot and thrown into mass graves when the ovens are overcapacity.

The camerawork favors long tracking shots focused tightly on Saul. Often we’re looking at his back, his jacket marked with a prominent red X denoting his special status. It’s impossible not to feel the intrusion of the edges of the frame, outside of which most of the violence remains. This both mimics the mental walls Saul has erected to enable himself to continue to trudge onward and imposes a sense of claustrophobia upon the viewer: we begin to feel a bit like prisoners ourselves.

When a boy somehow survives a session in the gas chamber and is subsequently suffocated by a Nazi doctor, Saul becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi to help give the child a proper burial. He’s far less interested in assisting his compatriots as they hatch a plan to fight their captors and escape. “We’re dead already,” he says.

Does this sound like a story you want to spend two hours watching? Taking a pass is understandable. The movie asks you to consider how well you’d hold up, and what difficult choices you’d make, when faced with the worst of humanity. Likely that’s not your idea of fun on a Friday night.

Yet the audacious filmmaking of Son of Saul, expected to win the foreign-language Oscar next month, deftly enlists us as co-conspirators in Saul’s plans. It manages the not-inconsiderable feat of carving out the tiniest bit of hope — even if that hope must wait for the next world, instead of our own.

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