'Son of Saul': Film Review

The first I heard of ’Son of Saul' was discovering that a ‘new Holocaust film’ was up for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I was further intrigued to watch it when it was announced that it was the winner, and was all the more pleased when I saw posters on the London Underground advertising its release (though not, disappointingly, in many major cinemas). Eventually I was able to watch the film in Leicester with a friend, who herself is an expert on the Holocaust as portrayed in theatre.

I think anyone who has watched 2001’s ’The Grey Zone’ will find it very easy to compare the two. After all, they both revolve around the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, including the revolt on 7 October 1944. After only the first ten minutes, however, I felt ’Son of Saul’ made ’The Gray Zone’ look somewhat amateur. Firstly, the fact that the former is performed in the languages which would have been spoken in the camp – primarily Hungarian, but also German, Yiddish and Russian – makes all the difference, compared to the American accents in the latter. Furthermore, the casting of ’Son of Saul’ also makes it seem more believable – after all, once you’ve seen at least one Adam Sandler film, how can you take someone like Steve Buscemi seriously as a member of the Sonderkommando in 'The Gray Zone'? There is, of course, the argument that ’The Gray Zone’ was deliberately cast and performed this way to show the audience that we will never know what it was really like. Of course we won’t; I’m not a film expert by any means, but even so, ’Son of Saul’ just seems to take everything a little more…seriously.

The camera techniques are also fascinating. For the majority of the screen, the viewer is confronted with Saul’s head and shoulders taking up most of the frame; at times we follow him, at times we appear to see what he is seeing. This allows for the horrors going on around Saul to be dealt with, but not overtly explicitly and not in an exaggerated manner. In the background, naked corpses are dragged from the gas chamber; people are shot into burning pits when the crematoria are working to full capacity; we see Saul and other members of his group quickly grabbing possessions of the victims off the hooks where they have only just been left, and soon afterwards hear the screaming and pounding on the door from those trapped inside the gas chamber. It does not appear to be horror for the sake of horror, but rather, gives us some impression of what may have been seen and heard in the gas chambers of Birkenau. In addition to these, there is historical reference to the photos taken by a Greek Jew named Alex to document the Nazis' crimes, so the viewer feels as though they are given access to a small but incredibly significant piece of history.

Géza Röhrig as Saul (Source: New Yorker)

On the other hand, my main criticism is with the general plotline itself. Saul claims that a boy who survives the gas chambers – but is murdered shortly afterwards – is his son, and is seeking out a Rabbi to give the boy a proper burial. The audience don’t know if this really is his son, and I could not quite work the overall message of this particular narrative. It seems to be a story of redemption and moral decency in a place where the two were virtually unheard of, but what does the boy symbolise? Is he or isn’t he Saul’s son, and what does this mean? What is the meaning of Saul’s near obsession with giving this one boy a burial? Is it a biblical, metaphorical or analogous meaning? Or is it something far less profound altogether? Perhaps, though, that is actually the hidden genius of the film; each viewer can take something different from it.

Ultimately, however, this is definitely a film worth seeing. It is both thought-provoking (as the above paragraph should suggest) and an incredible piece of cinema. When more Holocaust films are, inevitably, made, and especially if they are set in Auschwitz, they would do well to take inspiration from ’Son of Saul’.

Recommended for: A Level students and above, Holocaust Studies students, general audience.