Ashvegas movie review: ‘Son of Saul’


Ashvegas Movie Review

By Marcianne Miller

Son of Saul

Story: A Hungarian Jew in 1944 Auschwitz struggles to find a rabbi to bury a boy he imagines is his son.

Warning: The horror in this movie is very, very real.

Director/co-writer: Laszlo Nemes

Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity.

Won many awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Showing at Carolina Cinemas. Check theatre listings.

Grade A

As an Irish Catholic in Cleveland, Ohio I grew up in a community so insular that I never met a Jewish person until I was in high school. I was waitressing at Mawby’s diner when a new customer came in, sat on a stool, and put his arm on the counter while he studied the menu. As I stood above him to take his order, I could see the ugly purple numbers tattooed on his arm. I must have gasped because he looked up at me, looked through me actually, a boney man with dark circles under his eyes. I couldn’t breathe, my knees were shaking. I managed to stumble to the back of the restaurant where I cowered among the brooms, trying not to weep. When I went back to the counter, the man was gone.

I never forgot him, the first person I’d ever seen who had been in a Nazi concentration camp. Unknowingly, he set me on a life-long journey to discover all I could about the Holocaust and Nazism.

Son of Saul, currently showing in Asheville, is an excruciatingly realistic look at the horrors of concentration camps. It won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture. Hungarian director and co-writer Laszlo Nemes lost most of his family in Auschwitz. His film is his promise to them that they would not disappear without a trace. Years of research went into writing the script, and a sizeable crew of historians and technicians made the film look as accurate as possible. It took courage to make this film –and will take courage to see it.

Son of Saul is one of the few films about the Sonnderkommandos, the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who did the bulk of the work needed to keep the system of extermination going. They didn’t actually kill their fellow Jews, that “privilege” was left to the Nazis. This special unit was the clean-up crew. They worked only for a few months before they themselves would be executed and replaced with new arrivals. The question about the

Sonnderkommandos has always been–were these men collaborators or victims? Or both? If forced to do horrendous work or be shot immediately, what choice does a person have? How long can a human being live in hell before evil oozes from his pores?

Because of their intimate knowledge of the Nazi killing factory, the Sonnderkommandos were called the “bearers of secrets” and isolated from the other prisoners. Few of these 20,000-some special workers survived the war. Thus, there is no credible Sonnderkommando testimonial written by a survivor describing their life in the camps. We have relied instead on survivor memoirs from other Auschwitz prisoners, such as Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946) and Romanian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel (Night, 1956). The only records from the Sonnderkommandos are hand-written notes buried in the camps and discovered after the war. They are known as The Scrolls of Auschwitz.

Son of Saul’s native audiences are Europeans, who know the historical context of the film, but Americans, especially younger ones, might not. Auschwitz was a huge extermination complex located in Nazi-occupied Poland. One-sixth of Holocaust victims were killed there. From May to July in 1944 there was an escalation in the killing of Hungarian Jews. About 12,000 a day – a day!—were transported to Auschwitz during this period. Half of Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population, about 438,000 human beings, were deported to Auschwitz, giving Hungarians the dubious honor of having the largest number of Jewish victims at Auschwitz.

Only at Auschwitz were prisoners tattooed, which means the man I saw in the diner had indeed been in Auschwitz. He was either a survivor abandoned by the fleeing Nazis when the war was coming to an end, or had been transferred earlier from Auschwitz to another camp.

Son of Saul is different from other Holocaust films you might have seen, such as the sprawling Schindler’s List (1993). It’s shot in narrow focus close-up, concentrating on the main character, so you see only him, or what he sees. Such intensity of visual attention, combined with a sound track that is equally detailed with the noise of human beings and machinery, immerses you into the world onscreen.

Most of the films you remember well, or view repeatedly, are probably “immersive” films. But unlike them, there is nothing beautiful in Son of Saul. There are no sunlight-filled cutaways, no hopeful spring blossoms. Everything is defiantly ugly. There are no heroes in this movie either. Everyone’s either killing or dying.

Son of Saul follows a day and half in the life of a Hungarian Jew Sonnderkommando Saul Auslander, played by compelling Hungarian-American poet Goza Rohrig. It’s October, 1944. The orgy of killing is winding down a bit, but it’s still at a break-neck

pace. After the Nazis herd the prisoners into buildings and force them to disrobe they are pushed into the gas chambers. The lie, and remember everything about Nazism was a lie, is that they are going to have a nice hot lunch after their shower.

While the screams of the dying people are heard behind them, the Sonnderkommandos loot the victims’ clothing, looking for “shinies” (watches, jewelry and money) to hand over to the Nazi guards or keep themselves for bribes. They drag out the dead bodies (that’s where the “graphic nudity” warning comes in) and pile them into the crematoriums or into open pits on the ground. In typical Nazi orderliness, the gas chambers are meticulously cleaned, with the Sonnderkommandos scrubbing away blood and body fluids and bits of flesh. They shovel tons of grey cremated ashes into the nearby Vistula River. When a worker can no longer stand the horror of what he is forced to do, he commits suicide, one way or another, but nobody pays much attention and the work goes on.

One day Saul drags out the body of a young boy who is still breathing. Everyone is shocked. Even after 20 minutes of Zyklon B poisoning, the child lives. He is taken to the pathology lab where he is finally killed and the doctor, also a prisoner, is ordered to perform an autopsy on the child’s body so the Nazi commander can find out what was so special about the child that allowed him to survive.

Saul convinces himself – reality or a jolt of madness?– that the boy is his son. Knowing little about Judaism, Saul becomes convinced he must find a rabbi to perform burial rites for the boy. He wraps and hides the small body and goes on an impossible quest. With masses of new victims arriving and needing to be killed, with a Sonnderkommando rebellion fomenting, with betrayal and death lying in wait at every turn, Saul climbs through different layers of hell searching for a rabbi.

As I watched Saul hurrying through the crowds of strangers, I realized that I was looking for the man in the diner. Of course that’s crazy. But there is nothing logical about the way people respond to images of evil. And that’s why it is so important for us, especially this year, to see this film. So many millions of people were complicit in what happened to the Jews in the Nazi Reich, turning their eyes away, refusing to believe reports, turning back refugees.

Certainly in a political arena today where our candidates want to erect walls to keep out our neighbors, and are demanding laws to segregate Muslims, are we so naïve as to imagine that there are not ethnic badges in the pipeline? We must “never forget.” And always be vigilant, for as Son of Saul portrays so movingly, evil is something that can infect any of us and is not easily washed away.

Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Assn.) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Assn.) Email her at

1 Comment

ChristyD March 3, 2016 - 7:31 pm

I just saw Son of Saul at the Carolina, and can verify that Marcianne is totally accurate in her description of this film and its significance. It is not pleasant, but it is important, true, unforgettable, and needs to be seen.

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