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by Ralph Seliger
Reviewed in this essay: Son of Saul, a film by László Nemes. Sony Pictures Classics, 2015, 107 minutes.
VIEWERS OF THE OPENING SCENE of Son of Saul, Hungary’s contender for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, see blurry images that make many think there’s a technical problem. But once the focus sharpens on Géza Röhrig in the starring role of Saul Ausländer, a Sonderkommando slave laborer “assisting” a trainload of fresh arrivals to their doom in an Auschwitz gas chamber, it becomes clear that the camera’s focus — and lack of focus — are entirely intentional.
Through virtually the entire movie, the camera rivets us on the Ausländer character and his interactions with fellow members of the Sonderkommando and uniformed Nazi guards and officials, but hardly anyone else. Ausländer and his fellows have been selected on the basis of their relative physical strength to usher thousands of people daily to their deaths while preserving the fiction maintained throughout by their Nazi overlords that the victims have hot soup and good jobs waiting for them after they “shower.” The Sonderkommandos then scour the victims' clothes for valuables and food, clean up the gas chambers, and cart the naked bodies to the crematoria. Ausländer is among those “privileged” with three to four months of extra life doing this hellish work, while being fed adequately and allowed some small liberties within their quarters before being killed.
So the throngs of victims are literally blurred, both when alive and as naked corpses, and only seen in focus when in proximity to Ausländer. There’s also a jumble of sounds in the background, of different languages, of crying and screaming, orders barked in German, and (in some scenes) gunfire.
In focus briefly is a handsome boy of perhaps 12 or 13, who is discovered still breathing, albeit barely alive, after being gassed. One or two in the Sonderkommando whisper in awe about a girl some time before who similarly survived the gas. A Nazi officer dressed in a white lab coat checks the boy's vital signs with his stethoscope before squeezing his mouth and nose shut, suffocating him. The Nazi then orders an autopsy.
THE FILM'S PRIMARY plot line involves Ausländer’s seemingly insane effort amidst this vast machinery of death to save the boy from being autopsied and cremated, and to provide him with a decent Jewish burial. László Nemes, the film’s 38-year-old Hungarian-Jewish director, calls this Ausländer’s personal “resistance,” in contrast to the armed revolt that the doomed Sonderkommando are planning. They even conscript Ausländer, but it soon becomes clear that this is not what he’s committed to.
Nemes told the audience at a Manhattan Jewish Community Center preview, via Skype, that originally there was more of a “back story” that made it appear likely that the boy was Saul’s son (as Ausländer repeatedly claims), but that Nemes chose in the end to make this detail unclear, giving the role of the boy more of a symbolic and moral purpose for the main character fighting for his humanity in that inhuman place. This element of lofty symbolism in such a brutally concrete and base environment reminds us that filmmaking is an art form akin to poetry, but with the power to transport us visually to an alternate existence that appears compellingly real. Because Saul’s quest seems so absurd at Auschwitz — especially as the Sonderkommandos are about to fight for their lives in the only armed revolt to happen there (in October 1944) — I felt impatient with and alienated from him, which ultimately lessened the impact for me of what I still must regard as a powerful movie.
Whether or not his film triumphs on Oscar night, Nemes has already provoked much comment over his unique camerawork and use of sound. I’d like to see him do more with character development in the future, but with this as his first feature-length work, he probably has the chops to become a renowned international filmmaker.
Unlike most of the cast, Nemes' star, Géza Röhrig, has had some acting experience, but it’s been over twenty-five years since he played in two films in his native Hungary. Since then, this 48-year-old has lived in Jerusalem, studied at a yeshiva in Brooklyn (where he currently resides), graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary, worked as a teacher, published seven volumes of poetry, and is now writing his first novel. Like Nemes, it’s likely that we’ll have reason to make note of him again, possibly in more than one art form.
Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.