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son of saul
Click for full sized poster

Son of Saul

Starring Geza Röhrig
Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer
Inspired by the book, Voices from Beneath the Ashes
Directed by László Nemes

in Hungarian. Yeah. You read that right. Hungarian. And Yiddish. And German. And Polish with English subtitles

When I was about fourteen years old, I found a packet of letters that was sent to my maternal great-grandmother from the one member of the family to survive Hitler's concentration camps. All that cousin would say about those years was "You know what those bastards did."

IN SHORT: The Holocaust seen in a more horrifying way than you could ever imagine. [Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity. 107 minutes]

What is utterly sobering about co-writer/ director László Nemes' feature debut is that is not a "Holocaust Movie." There is no focus whatsoever on the events occurring inside "the showers" of the Auschwitz-Birkenau "work camp." Instead, the film is about Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), one member of a group labelled "Sonderkommando," captive Jews pressed into service cleaning up the human detritus left after each extermination is carried out.

First, though, a new shipment of Jews is moved with factory-like efficiency through the camp. While a soothing voice promises good and plentiful jobs to be had at the camp -- after a quick shower -- they hang their clothes on numbered pegs ("Don't forget the number" says the voice). With promises of "hot soup to fill (their) bellies" -- again, after that quick shower -- the living quickly become dead. Estimates place that number at close to 3,000 murdered each day. You can contemplate that number as the film's sound effects do the work of sickening the crap out of you.

Saul's introduction is accompanied by one of the few miracles to be found in this setting: At the bottom of a pile of victims, a boy of perhaps nine or ten years of age is found, alive. While Saul's back is turned, a Nazi pig-in-a-uniform puts the boy down in a manner so simple and barbaric that we shuddered when we figured out just what we were looking at. From this point forward, all you need to know is that Saul believes that the murdered boy was his son. When the body is sent to be autopsied by the camp Doctor (Sándor Zsotér), presumably to uncover the reason the boy survived the gas, Saul begs the doctor to let him bury "his" child. The Doctor, himself a Jewish prisoner, suggests that this outcome may be possible. Except that it isn't. Saul works his way through the camp, seeking out a rabbi to first say a mourner's kaddish over the body . . .

For non-Hebrews in our reading audience: the Mourner's Kaddish is a prayer once recited by Jews who were actually in a period of mourning. Those in the immediate family would "sit shiva" for a week. Widows would traditionally mourn for a year. In the modern era, which means the way yours Cranky was raised, the kaddish is recited as part of the weekly service since virtually all members of a congregation have lost a family member at some point. While technically true that anyone who knows the prayer can say it, traditionally a rabbi (our equivalent of a preacher or priest, duh) leads the prayer.

. . . More insane is Saul's intention to save the corpse from incineration in the camp's ovens or fire pits, and physically bury his son. It is an intent that only a member of the Sonderkommando could have. As the Jews that did the dirty work, so to speak, the Sonderkommando were the privileged few. They were fed (or at least they were allowed to scavenge for whatever food may have been hidden in the clothing of the murdered Jews). They had a lifespan of three to four months before extermination, which is essentially three to four months more than most every other Jew in camp. They also had access to more areas of the camp than the rest of the doomed. That access allowed the formation of a small army within the camp, whose rebellion against the Nazis rises in the film's final Act.

Even as the Doctor promises that Saul will get the body back, the man is forced through the Nazi version of Dante's Inferno. Most of those levels of hell involve forced labor and the disposal of corpses or piles of ashes. We've just about said too much.

Son of Saul is an intensely horrific and sobering film. Be glad for the distraction of having to read subtitles. If you didn't, the film might overwhelm you.

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.