Son of Saul Is a Harrowing First-Person Look at the Holocaust — With a Big Cheat of an Ending

By
Géza Röhrig in Son of Saul. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Be advised that this review addresses the entire narrative of Son of Saul, including revelations as well as the ending of the film.

Set amid the Zyklon-B-dispensing showers and corpse-disposal facilities of the most infamous Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz, Son of Saul is difficult for most people — especially Jews — to sit through, much less write about, much less criticize. I admit that I watched in a defensive crouch, afraid of what I might see next and torn between admiration for the courage of its 38-year-old Hungarian director, László Nemes, and doubts about the device he invented for going where no fictional filmmaker has gone before: to put the audience in the head of a camp resident on a quixotic — to say the least — mission to find spiritual closure.

That resident is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), one of a group of Jews (“Sonder-kommandos”) allowed to live (for a time) by performing the most grisly of tasks: transporting the bodies of men, women, and children from the showers to the crematorium and/or cleaning up the mess left behind. Nemes and his cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, photograph Son of Saul almost entirely from Saul’s fevered vantage, which is, in one respect, a mercy. The faces of the corpses — with a sole exception — are offscreen. Instead, we see parts of bodies, blue-gray limbs and torsos, often blurred along with the backgrounds. The blurring has a dramatic function: to suggest that to do his job, Saul has had to screen out his fellow Jews’ identities, even their humanity.

That exception is a teenage boy who somehow survives a gassing. Carried from the showers, he is avidly scrutinized by Nazi doctors and then, in a long, hazy shot, suffocated. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that he was unconscious and would not have lived long anyway — some comfort. Saul’s response is more convoluted. The boy, he tells a fellow worker, is his son, and he must bury the body in a formal Jewish ritual, with a rabbi present to say the traditional prayer for the dead. It’s a perilous quest because (a) the boy’s body is marked for dissection and (b) men identified as rabbis are promptly murdered by the Nazis.

There’s no way to engage with Son of Saul without spelling out its central conceit, which means you should read no further if you want to be “surprised.” (I’ll be discussing the ending, too, so beware.) As the film goes on, it’s more and more apparent that the boy is not Saul’s son. By all accounts (including that of a woman he encounters who might be his wife), Saul has no son. We are trailing a madman. But he has, of course, a larger kind of sanity. Unable to deaden himself any longer to the horror around him, Saul has unconsciously devised a way to reconnect with the world he once knew, with its age-old system of values and abiding faith. For the remainder of the film, the camera follows Saul from one part of the camp to another as he searches for a rabbi to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Nemes spent a decade bringing Son of Saul to the screen (this is his first feature), and it has a distinctively thick texture — heavy, as if the air itself had turned viscid, clotted with bodies living and dead, rank. The sound is dense, layer upon layer of clanks and infernal hisses and the muffled screams of the dying. Working from, among other primary texts, diaries buried by Sonderkommandos before a 1944 revolt, Nemes has diagrammed the machine, showing us How Things Worked in a factory created to make murder impersonal and efficient, to streamline genocide. And Nemes has streamlined the movie to make you feel that mechanization viscerally, shooting most scenes in long, single, unrelieved takes. Amid such all-enveloping inhumanity, acts of cruelty come to seem routine, acts of cowardice on the part of other Jews grimly expected, and acts of kindness momentous.

The texture is thick — but the film is thin. There’s only one full-fleshed character in Son of Saul, and he has only one idea, an idée fixe. It’s a one-idea movie. We’re not just trapped in an extermination camp. We’re also trapped in the head of a fiercely driven but unaware and unreflective figure, uninteresting not because he’s mad but because his madness is, like the film itself, monotonous. Like Birdman and other “tour de force” endurance tests, Son of Saul holds us with its hard-charging technique, its bullying subjectivity.

The movie doesn’t expand in your mind — it shrinks along with its protagonist, its conclusion a reductio ad absurdum. Saul gets swept up in an escape attempt that takes him across a river, where he loses that precious body in the current, and into a forest cabin where his fellow fugitives plan their next moves. Suddenly, a small Polish boy wanders by, sees them, and runs away — but what Saul perceives is that his son is alive after all. He dies radiant, that madness turning out to be the tenderest mercy of all.

This is, bluntly, crap, and if the finale weren’t so shocking — everyone dies off-screen in a barrage of Nazi gunfire — I think the audience would see it more clearly for the cheap trick it is. In interviews, Nemes has argued that most Holocaust stories lie by focusing on survival instead of the reality — that the Jews of Europe were almost completely exterminated. His ending is a way of delivering that message but with a cute literary button, which can be taken as either a sick joke at the expense of the character in whose mission we’ve been invested or a “Little Match Girl” moment of deliverance. Or both. However you take it, the final minute suggests that Nemes has been boxed into a corner by his own high concept.

I don’t want to diminish Nemes’s accomplishment in re-creating this hell and setting us down in the middle of it — a place that many of us have never even allowed ourselves to imagine being. But we measure works that center on human atrocities by different standards, and deluded Saul ends up a poor vessel for a journey of this magnitude. A true tragic hero dies with his eyes wide open.

*This article appears in the January 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.