[From The Guardian]
This astonishing debut film, about a prisoner in the concentration camp employed in the industrial processes of body-disposal, is a horror movie of extraordinary focus and courage
A season in hell is what this devastating and terrifying film offers — as well an occasion for meditating on representations of the Holocaust, on Wittgenstein’s dictum about matters whereof we cannot speak, and on whether these unimaginable and unthinkable horrors can or even should be made imaginable and thinkable in a fictional drama. There is an argument that any such drama, however serious its moral intentions, risks looking obtuse or diminishing its subject, although this is not a charge that can be ultimately levelled at Son of Saul.
By any standards, this would be an outstanding film, but for a debut it is really remarkable, a film with the power of Elem Klimov’s Come and See — which has surely inspired the film’s final sequence — and perhaps also Lajos Koltai’s Hungarian film Fateless. It also has the severity of Béla Tarr, to whom director Làszlò Nemes was for two years an assistant, but notably without Tarr’s glacial pace: Nemes is clearly concerned at some level to exert the conventional sort of narrative grip which does not interest Tarr.
Son of Saul is set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, and one Hungarian Jewish prisoner named Saul (played by Geza Röhrig) is a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners given humiliating and illusory privileges as trusties, with minor increases of food ration in return for the task of carrying the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres to be burnt and then carting the ashes away to be dumped: a task carried out at a frantic, ever-accelerating 24/7 rate, as the Allies close in. Among the dead, Saul discovers the body of his young son, and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give this boy a proper burial in secret: an objective requiring the deployment of pleas, threats, blackmail and the offerings of bribes using jewellery (called the “shiny”) stolen from the bodies. Saul’s desperate mission is carried out with the same urgent, hoarse whispers and mutterings as another plot in progress: a planned uprising, which Saul’s intentions may in fact upset. And all the time, the Sonderkommandoare aware, through this network of whispers, that they themselves will be executed in due course by their Nazi captors.
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