None of us, editors of this website, dared to go. The movie Son of Saul, by the Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, was supposedly too hard to look at. Would we be able to deal with the evil we would be exposed to? In the end I decided to go, some strange desire to find out what I could handle, but also to find out whether I could begin to understand what evil can do to those subjected to it.
We find ourselves in the Second World war, in the most well known extermination camp, in 1944. That summer each day thousands of Jews are being killed. The nazi industrial extermination of what the nazi’s consider to be unwanted people, is at its peak.
Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian Jew, has been made member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Brikenau. The Sonderkommando was to assist the Nazi’s to kill and destroy Jews arriving in Auschwitz from all over Europe. The task of the Sonderkommado is to bring newly arrived prisoners to the gas chambers. Once they are gassed the Sonderkommando has to drag the dead bodies out of the chambers and put them in the ovens for the last part of their destruction.
Among the dead and dying victims Saul discovers an almost dead boy he thinks to be his son. The camp physician finishes the killing of this boy. During the two days we follow Saul, we see him trying to prevent his son from being burned in the destruction ovens, fighting his own little, yet important fights with fellow prisoners. He wants his son to be buried by a Rabbi and puts everything to work in order to achieve this.
Meanwhile some of his fellow members of the Sondercommando have a different goal to achieve: to escape from the camp and they expect Saul to be with them. His search for a rabbi interferes with their plan to escape. They all fight their own important fight.
In the dehumanized world Saul finds himself in, even the most terrible things become routine; dragging with dead bodies becomes as normal as arguing about cigarettes.
Since the camera follows Saul very closely, the moviegoer sees the atrocities from a distance, slightly vague. But the sound of orders being shouted, the yelling of victims, the thundering flames in the ovens does not allow you to escape from the atrocities.
The nazi’s make Saul and others doing things they would never have thought themselves to be capable of. Doing so they could prolong their life by about four months. Does that make them guilty? What would happen to you, when you were forced into atrocities? Would you still be capable of empathy? Saul’s face looks resigned, having told new arrivals the lies about what was going to happen to them. Lies he already told many times, knowing that they would all be dead within a few hours.
Should you have expected, as I did before this movie, that having a common enemy makes people feel close to fellow victims, you will be deceived. This movie shows that in a dehumanized world everyone fights for his own good, even though, or maybe because, everyone knows that the end is near.
And yes, I could look at the movie, be it in a constant state of horror. The way the movie was produced was helpful, since the most horrific was depicted in a somewhat vague way, only Saul being in the foreground. It left me with the feeling that understanding what evil can do to people requires insight in the context in which that evil takes place.
The movie was first shown in May 2015, at the filmfestival of Cannes and was granted the Grand Prix. Filmmaker Nemes lost a large part of his family in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Son of Saul is his first film. Nemes did not want to make an embellished, nor a horror film, nor a film with a hero who would survive. The film had to address the appalling but day-to-day reality of the camp: the extermination of millions of people. This makes Son of Saul an important testimony of what can be the ultimate consequence of racism and xenophobia.