Son of Saul is one of those haunting films that stays with you long after the credits begin to roll. As you think more about it and your 107 minutes spent with Saul Auslander more questions and revelations about his story creep into your mind. Who was this man? What was his history?
Set in Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII, Son of Saul follows 2 days in the life of Hungarian Sonderkommando, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig). Responsible for collecting the dead after slaughtered in the gas chambers, cleaning said chambers, and bringing the bodies for cremating Saul goes through his duties expressionless. Shot mostly in close up, the audience is there with Saul. Much of the background is blurred out or obstructed from our view, we focus on Saul. This changes when he comes across the body of a young boy who he takes as his son and seeks to have buried properly. His mission and his will to live suddenly change as now he has a purpose. He becomes totally obsessed with finding a Rabbi to do a proper preparation for and subsequent burial according to Jewish law. This is all against the backdrop of not just the horrors of Auschwitz, but also as he and the other Sonderkommandos prepare a revolt against their captors.
Throughout the less than 48 hours spent with Saul not a lot is learned about him. We get bits and pieces throughout the narrative, but even those are questionable. Is the child really his son? If not, what is his motivation for obsessing over this child’s burial? Did he have children at all? Was he married? We do meet one woman, who has a different last name as him, that he clearly has some past with, but what is that past? Was he religious or is his preoccupation with finding a Rabbi for this child his way of honoring the shred of his humanity that is left.
The cinematography is also fascinating. The first three shots of the film are very long takes, focusing in on Saul as he performs his duties. They are from behind and from the side, not focusing in on his face. These takes set the scene, they draw the viewer in. Subsequently the camera mostly focuses in on Saul’s face. In contrast to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the close ups here don’t serve to highlight specific expressions, rather they highlight lack of expression. Paired with quick takes and cuts it creates a chaotic sense of claustrophobia that is uncomfortable for the audience. We cannot look away. We cannot escape. We are disoriented and unsure of our surroundings. We are Saul, stuck in the mire of the horrors of the camp.
In the final scene (don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending but you might want to skip this if you don’t want any hints to the ending) Saul offers, for the first time, a new expression, followed by one of, if not the, widest shots in the entire film. Its meaning is also ambiguous, although I took it to mean peace, the scenic shot and new expression on Saul’s face offer a different aesthetic from the rest of the film and even though the ending was not what we were hoping for there is value in the conclusion.
On a separate note, this film represents something that is valuable to what I call the “Jews on screen” narrative. Since WWII, Holocaust films have been abundant. Both about the Jews as they suffer at the hands of the Nazis, or in the PTSD era of how they had to cope with the horrors they lived through while many of their families did not (The Pawnbroker, for instance). Traditionally, the narrative has been “Jews as victims” and only recently has it morphed into “Jews as heroes.” Recently, with films such as Defiance, Inglorious Basterds, The Debt, No Place on Earth and others, the Jew as hero narrative begins to emerge. Jews are not people who are mere victims, unable or unwilling to take charge of their own destinies. They won’t lie down and take what is being given to them. They will fight back, physically or emotionally.
What I find to be really fascinating about this shift is that it comes at the same time that Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, but now it’s disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. Jews are being celebrated on screen for defending themselves, but when they do it in “real life,” they are disparaged. While Palestinians murder Jews in the streets of Israel and in their homes, the world is calling for boycotts of Jewish goods from Judea and Samaria, not to mention the insistence that Jews leave their homes in that area. When the IDF or the Israeli police retaliate and neutralize (kill) the murdering terrorists or when they return the rockets that are fired from Gaza, the world cries out that Israel is not showing restraint and they should react with “proportionality.” Jews can be masters of their own fates on screen but when it happens in reality there is a disconnect and people don’t know how reconcile that. How can those who celebrate strength and honor in the face of imminent destruction decry the same strength and honor in another scenario?
Son of Saul brings up all of those questions through focusing in on a short time spent with one man in a horrific situation. Maybe through these on screen Jewish heroes during their darkest time, the world can translate that to modern day and honor the actions of Jews today as they live and defend their rightful homeland, the one place in the world where they can be safe from the horrors that the world wishes to impose on them.