MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by László Nemes. Starring Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnar.
At the beginning of Son of Saul there is a title card that explains the role of “sonderkommandos” – these are the prisoners in Germany’s concentration camps who were given the job of assisting in the process of guiding others into the gas chambers and assisting in the cremation of their fellow Jews. This role would grant them a few more months of life and slightly better meals, but their eventual demise would be a foregone conclusion.
Saul Auslander (Nemes) is a sonderkommando and we observe him stoically going about the routines of the day. Guiding prisoners, helping them hang their clothing on hooks, separating them from their valuables, and then moving them along on the pathway to their deaths.
This is a grim nightmare of a film, with the distinction of keeping Saul’s point of view with us all of the way. The film is framed in a tight square, rather than widescreen, and the camera is usually focused on Saul, with the horrors of the camp mostly off-screen and often out of focus. As other characters come into interplay with Saul, it is not always clear what is going on between them, but there is something in Saul’s eyes that conveys the terrible sadness of accompanying your people into Hell.
It is 1944 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Hungary, and there are murmurings between the sonderkommandos of a possible revolt. But Saul finds himself focused on another solitary task. A young boy dies and Saul feels called to take his body, find a rabbi, and conduct a proper Jewish burial. Saul claims him as his son and thus begins the arduous task of achieving his goal. In the midst of the deepest darkness, an act of mercy and kindness may take place.
Son of Saul is not an easy film to watch. It is claustrophobic, chaotic, horrific and heartbreaking. But it is also a profound meditation on the banality of evil as well as humanity’s determination to light a candle in the darkness, even if only a flickering wick. It is a work of art that continues to haunt me weeks after viewing. Hungary’s Son of Saul is a frontrunner for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Last year’s Academy Award Winner was Poland’s Ida, a Holocaust film that I highly recommend (the review is in the archives).
I am convinced that if we seek to have the mind of Christ, we must allow our hearts to be broken on regular occasion. Son of Saul forces the viewer to look into the face of evil and see one man’s efforts to find a moment of grace.
Four halos: An unforgettable film experience of the highest order, evoking compassion and empathy in the midst of absolute despair.
Five pitchforks: The horrors of institutional genocide, including violence and nudity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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