Son of Saul (M). Director: László Nemes. Starring: Géza Röhrig. 107 minutes
In the history of the Second World War and the deathly screed of the Final Solution, the Sonderkommando cuts a pitiable figure. These Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz and other death camps were forced to perform the logistics surrounding mass murder — the carting and disposal of dead flesh. Though patently victims, they were viewed by some as collaborators. This left the few who survived the camps with a moral burden that was part and parcel of their specific trauma.
Son of Saul — a Hungarian production, whose Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this week is but the latest in a long trail of critical accolades — provides an immersive and impressionistic extrapolation of this ethical and actual horror. It takes place over the course of the day and a half leading up to the revolt by Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz in 1944, during which one of the camp's crematoriums was partly destroyed and three SS men were killed.
Underpinning the experimental approach taken by first-time feature filmmaker Nemes, these sensational events form the backdrop rather than the focus of the film; for the most part its hero Saul (Röhrig) becomes caught up in them only incidentally. As they unfold he is preoccupied with an unlikely personal matter: he has taken one of the latest victims of the gas chamber to be his illegitimate son, and seeks a rabbi among his fellow prisoners to help provide the boy with a proper Jewish burial.
In a further act of effective experimentation, Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély use a narrow 1.375:1 aspect ratio frame to taper the viewer's gaze towards the face and shoulders of Saul, as he carries out his gruesome duties and pitches in with the resistance efforts as a way to gain mobility around the camp. The environment itself is caught in glimpses and in the vast, evocative soundscape; the sound design reportedly took five months, layering sound with human voices in eight languages.
While there are questions regarding whether the boy is, in fact, the 'son of Saul', these turn out to be marginal. More pertinent is the juxtaposition of Saul's recognition of the dignity and meaning found in cultural rituals surrounding death, with the pragmatic, depersonalised 'rituals' of the Final Solution. Thus the sight of Saul prayerfully scratching out a grave in soil is a direct counterpoint to the image of corpses being heaved into a fire pit, or heaps of human ashes being dutifully shovelled into a river.
As such the ordinary humanity of a single Sonderkommando is revealed as a meaningful riposte to the extraordinary inumanity of the Holocaust.
Tim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.