I don’t like the Holocaust movies simply because whatever may be the principal story, all of them give a sense of false hope throughout the film and everyone dies in the end. I feel like cheated. Every single film starts with a story but ends with only focusing on the atrocities at the Nazi concentration camps. Schindler’s List was different because for the first time I watched some people surviving in the end. Life is Beautiful is maybe the best film on these concentration camps because it never diverted from its principal story which was, in a way, unrelated to the Holocaust. The atrocities at the camps played a supportive role to the main story.
For this simple reason, I hesitated to watch Son of Saul for these many months. But good films attract good viewers (sometimes it’s good to boast) and I finally watched it. First time director Laszlo Nemes from Hungary collaborated with first-time actor Geza Rohrig and came up with this brilliant film called Son of Saul. It has all the elements that I have mentioned as the reasons to hate Holocaust movies but yet surprisingly I loved it.
The year is 1944, and the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. In this death camp, Saul, a Hungarian Jewish prisoner is a Sonderkommando. Sonderkommando is a group of prisoners that do certain works for the German army and in return get some false privileges and promises of getting good wages. These works include carrying the dead bodies from the gas chambers to the furnace to be burnt and disposing of the ashes in the river and in return what they actually get is few more months to live. Saul is a very good worker. He does everything that is assigned to him without flinching or complaining about anything. He is apparently indifferent and mysteriously emotionless while doing these inhuman works. The story takes a turn when Saul finds a dead body of a boy and says that it’s his son’s and he wants a proper burial for his son with the help of the camp’s doctor and a Rabbi. And all these wishes has to be fulfilled in a Nazi concentration camp where every moment people are dying and where the prisoners are planning a revolt to be executed in no time. Ok, its fine, after all, the dead boy is Saul’s son and he deserves proper last rites even if the conditions are not favorable but Saul becomes more mysterious when one prisoner who knows him well says that he does not have a son. But Saul is adamant and at any cost, he will do what he has decided. In one of the scenes, a fellow prisoner tells him, “you have forsaken the living for the dead” and I too shared that opinion.
But Saul has found a purpose in life, whether that boy is his son or not he will definitely give him a proper burial and he also has been able to find a Rabbi. He has gone to the level of becoming a thief by stealing jewelry from the dead bodies to bribe some guards and fellow Sonderkommandos to meet his purpose. But things never go as planned when you are in a Nazi concentration camp waiting for your turn to die and along with that also planning to revolt against the German army.
Geza Rohrig as Saul is unbelievably talented and has treated this character totally differently from what one can perceive. He has barely spoken in the film and barely has shown any emotions on his face and for me, it is beyond words to express what he has been able to do with this character of Saul. One can only feel it and cannot explain it in words.
The director, Laszlo Nemes, must have shared my apprehensions about the Holocaust movies that’s why he has taken altogether a different path. Nemes along with co-writer Clara Royer has treated the often repeated subject of Holocaust in strange manners. I praised Life is Beautiful because in it the atrocities formed part of the background story. Nemes has gone further to the next level and has presented the atrocities in the concentration camps in blurry shots and background noises. There is no background music in the film and this is replaced by sounds of crying, dog barking, gunshots, whispering and some other noises. This has created a powerful background score that remains with you maybe forever. The camera is always placed behind Saul and we see clearly only those things that Saul sees everything else in the surroundings has been left blurry. This also creates a strange effect for the viewers. In other words, viewers are placed just behind Saul to become Saul. This is very effective as not only Saul but also viewers stay focused to his purpose. The only problem with this film that I found is that it requires great concentration to fully understand what is going on because except the Hero it’s difficult to differentiate other important characters. They all look the same.
Son of Saul won the Oscars for best Foreign Language Film and it’s a pity that the Academy doesn’t give Best Actor award for a foreign language film because Geza Rohrig’s Saul is the best performance by an actor in any language in 2015. The film also got a Golden Globe and top four awards at the Cannes Film Festival. This is a must watch film.