I once heard a Holocaust survivor say that movies made about the Nazis’ atrocities during World War II are only ever just movies, as they are unable to truly capture the horrors of genocide perpetrated against Jews and other “untermenschen” in Europe. However, that doesn’t stop filmmakers from trying and movies that fall under the Holocaust and WWII genre range from the utterly heartbreaking (“Schindler’s List”) to the utterly ridiculous (“Inglourious Basterds”). By definition, a movie about the slaughter of millions should be hard to watch, not so much a piece of entertainment, but a tool with which to teach that history should not repeat itself.
At the same time, the films cannot just be comprised of tedious violence. The director, screenwriter, cinematographer and cast must find both a unique story to tell and a unique way to tell it. Steven Spielberg chose a story of one’s man profound kindness during a bleak time, using black and white to invoke the realistic feeling a 1940s war newsreel. On the other hand, Quentin Tarantino decided to depict a violent world that sadly did not come to fruition, any Jew’s fever dream of avenging their fallen brethren upon the Nazis, taking their scalps as trophies before blowing up the entire Reich high command and effectively ending the war. In essence, these movies totally changed our preconceptions of how the Holocaust and WWII could and should be portrayed.
The latest Holocaust film to redefine the genre is “Son of Saul” (or “Saul Fia”), a foreign picture from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes. It caused a huge buzz when it won the Grand Prix award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and for good reasons. From the cinematography to the performances, this is an intensely personal film that achieves no small feat: making you feel like you’re in the thick of the action, standing amid the horrors of Auschwitz.
“Saul” is about the Sonderkommandos, a special unit of Jews in the Nazi concentration camp responsible for leading their fellows into the gas chambers before disposing of their bodies in the crematoria, working only for a few months before being murdered themselves. In particular, it follows one of them: Saul Auslander, played by Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig in one of the most serious cinematic performances I have ever seen. Saul’s deadpan stare is that of a nearly broken man, his eyes reflecting the hundreds of people he has led to their deaths. He is more an automaton than a human being and it is from his point of view that we witness the utter hopelessness and evil of the most well-known of the Nazi extermination camps. The plot finds Saul searching for a rabbi who can help him properly bury the body of a young boy who may or may not be his son.
For the vast majority of the experience, the story is told almost solely from Saul’s perspective in long, shaky over-the-shoulder tracking shots that evoke the naturalistic documentary style of cinema verite. In fact, the film is composed of less than a hundred of these shots in total and contains no music, save for a mournful klezmer tune during the end credits. It’s a groundbreaking and realistic style of storytelling that can only be compared to last year’s “Birdman,” which pulled off the illusion of being filmed in one take.
What the director and his cinematographer Matyas Erdely choose to show onscreen is even more ingenious. Limiting the picture to a small aspect ratio, the movie only depicts just enough, never giving too much away, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. Most of the violence and gore takes place just off camera or in the blurry distance. There is no large scope because the view is through the eyes of one man, one prisoner. Everything moves in and out of focus at a fast pace as there is no time for Saul or the audience to reflect, only to survive.
While this is Nemes’s first feature-length film, it is undeniably an unflinching look at one of humanity’s darkest moments and essential viewing for anyone, whether they are students of history or not. From the opening scene in which depicts the transportation of Jews into the gas chambers, the director’s hands-off style and Rohrig’s committed performance combine to create a powerful imagery: the banal horror of inmates shoveling the ashes of burnt Jews into a river or the sickening confusion of men, women, and children being stripped naked before a pit of fire and shot in the head.
Dehumanization of concentration camp prisoners was the goal of the Nazis before murdering them and “Son of Saul” is like a first-hand experience of what this was like, or as close as one could come to it: comparing Jews to dogs, swine, and rats; making them murder their own kin. But it’s also about the fact that, no matter how downtrodden, the human spirit can always make one more effort to do the right thing. If “Saul” is a fable, that’s the moral and taking it to heart is not enough. One must use it as a lesson to always find a way to undermine evil, no matter how dark and futile things may seem. We can use the tale of the fictional Saul Auslander to do practical and profound things in our own lives. After all, as a wise survivor once said, it’s only ever just a movie.