First-time Hungarian director László Nemes has been quoted as saying that he didn’t want to make a film like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which he dubbed too ‘conventional’. Nemes insisted on creating a different kind of Holocaust drama, where the emphasis was not on the survivors but on those who perished—pointing out that surviving the Holocaust was an anomalous affair.
Nemes’ protagonist is Saul Ausländer, a native Hungarian, who worked as an Auschwitz Sonderkommando (a group of prisoners given special privileges by the Nazis in exchange for assisting them in the extermination procedures and clean-up duties at the camp). Despite being housed away from the crematoriums and given a few extra meager rations, the Sonderkommandos were marked for death when it was deemed they had completed all the work required of them by the Nazis. After the war, some Sonderkommandos were treated as war criminals and shunned by the survivors.
Ausländer discovers that one Hungarian boy has survived inside a gas chamber. His life is brief after a Nazi doctor suffocates him and orders an autopsy (to determine why this particular boy had survived). Ausländer insists this boy is his son and arranges to gain possession of the body so he can find a Rabbi to perform a proper burial. Was the boy really his son? At one point, Ausländer states that this was his son from a woman he never married. That kind of statement makes one believe that Ausländer could have been telling the truth. But he could have said that to justify his actions with his fellow inmates—they of course regarded his belief as a delusion and that he was “more interested in the dead than the living.” An alternative way of looking at this is that this is how Ausländer could find some measure of redemption inside such a horrific environment—by arranging for the boy to be properly buried, he would be thwarting the Nazis’ aim to desecrate the body as well as giving his life some purpose amidst the horror.
Nemes’ technique is to shoot the entire movie close-up from Ausländer’s point of view. The camera never pulls back so we can see the bigger picture. Since everything is shot close-up, we can only catch glimpses of what’s happening all around the beleaguered Sonderkommando. We never see the Jewish victims being gassed inside the crematorium. But we can hear their screams and terrifying pounding on the steel door as Ausländer stands right in front of it. Glimpses of the bodies (described as ‘pieces’ by the Sonderkommandos) are briefly seen being pulled out of the gas chamber and Ausländer and his associates must clean the blood on the floor so none of the new victims get any wind of what is about to happen to them.
Nemes’ decision to shoot close-up has the effect of distancing the audience from the horrors that are not seen directly. In one respect, this distancing effectively makes the horror more palpable—if the audience takes in too many horrifying images, they may become numb to it all. On the other hand it defeats Nemes’ purpose which is to emphasise the emotional connection with the audience—we’re supposed to be shocked by the inhumanity (not sheltered due to not seeing the whole picture). The 1985 Russian film, Come and See, had a similar distancing problem— the subject matter concerned the massacre of civilians in Belarus by the Nazis and their collaborators. Unlike Son of Saul, Come and See was shot from a distance, not close-up. But the result was the same: the horror was not horrifying enough.
The value of films such as Come and See and Son of Saul is that they convey the ‘atmosphere’ of genocide. From a distance, one might perceive the Nazis’ actions as a macabre carnival where the perpetrators continually enjoy themselves as they commit repulsive, sadistic acts.
Nemes also fulfills his promise not to give the wrong impression that the Holocaust was a story of survival. The final, gripping scenes in Son of Saul make it clear that there were virtually no survivors. Ausländer may have found some peace that he was able to save his “son” from desecration, but those whom we were rooting for throughout the narrative, are mowed down by Nazi bullets, the sound of which occur effectively off screen.
Son of Saul is less effective as a drama due to lack of a singular antagonist. We rarely get to see what the personalities of the perpetrators are like. There is one really telling scene where a Nazi officer mocks Ausländer, dancing around him and speaking in pidgin Yiddish. But for the most part, the Nazis here are faceless entities. It might have been more interesting if their genocidal actions were seen from their point of view.
Finally, Ausländer’s journey is too one-note and repetitious to be effective. We get the idea of what he is trying to do early on—it may be noble but his plan is aimless and ineffectual. Paul Ranier writing in the Christian Science Monitor echoes my sentiments: “Nemes’s Saul- centric stylistics grow wearisome after a while, because Saul, blank- faced throughout, never really comes to life as much more than a symbolic martyr.”
Son of Saul is certainly up there with other Holocaust films that depict the horrors from a sensory and auditory perspective. This may be the only way to effectively convey what occurred in the extermination camps. Nonetheless, somehow the human element is missing here—which of course would involve fleshed-out multi-dimensional protagonists and antagonists, and the conflicts cogently enumerated between them.