When I left the mid-day screening of this film it was sunny outside. Bright rays gleamed upon the cinema and I glared at them. As I walked home there was a busker singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’. I glared at him. As I passed through a heaving farmers market I glared at the merry people chomping away. I couldn’t work out why I was reacting in this way. Ordinarily I would be thrilled by walking out of the cinema into sun. I would beam at a busker singing Katrina and the Waves 1983 seminal feel-good classic. And I’d probably only side-eye the hipsters filling the farmers market. Why was I so angry at everything? It seemed obvious that it was most likely my response to the film and the horrors it entailed. But these were not horrors that were new to me – I hadn’t learnt anything new and the events of the film were horrifically familiar.
That’s when I fully grasped just how masterful ‘Son of Saul’ is. It’s almost a rethink of how to portray the Holocaust – by not showing it at all. Gone are any attempts at glamorization, of showy melodrama or noble heroism. Instead we are shown pieces of events – snippets of the evil that took place only feature in the side of or outside of the frame. Overt dramatization is replaced by close-up and over-the-shoulder shots with shallow focus on our central characters face. We hear the events but we don’t see them – leaving the spectator’s imagination to join the dots and fill in the gaps. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”.
It is 1944. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is part of the Sonderkommando unit. He is forced, under threat of death, to work for the Nazis in removing the “‘pieces” (the term used for bodies) from the gas chambers. Although the job delays his death it is only a temporary pardon – the job, and therefore his life, has an expiry date of five months which he is fast approaching. When clearing out the chambers post-gassing he finds a still-breathing boy that he believes to be his son. The Nazi doctors swiftly suffocate the boy and decide to have an autopost performed on him to find out how he survived. Saul desperately endeavours to stop the autopsy and find a Rabbi to lead a proper burial for the boy.
The events that follow are unforgettable in terms of content and portrayal – relentless and horrifying yet the carnage is skillfully implied as opposed to being explicitly shown. The two hours spent watching this film are two hours spent being a spectator in Hell. Death is not shown but instead resides off-frame – an omnipotent and omnipresent force haunting the frame. Just as one should not look directly into the sun we cannot look directly into the face of evil.
The opening sequence must be forever acknowledged in its audacity and its viscerality. We observe Saul as a sheepdog figure, one of many leading herds of bewildered people into what appears to be a changing room. An off-screen voice offers reassuring sentiments they are going for a shower and offers promises of what will follow. Our focus never leaves Saul’s face as we swiftly realise with unbearable inevitability what will happen next. We don’t see the people enter the gas chamber. We don’t see them die. But we do hear them die.
Rohrig’s performance is truly exceptional – his Saul is haunted and hollow. Grizzled by the unspeakable horror, his jaw is rigid with determination and his eyes are empty. We can only wonder how he keeps on living. The fact this is Rohrig’s first performance, as it is the director’s first feature, only adds to the remarkability of this film.
It is unbearably difficult to write this review – every word or phrase seems inadequate to fully describe the soul-altering experience of watching. It leaves you so numb you can no longer cry. Unlike any other Holocaust film there is nothing here to sweeten the devastating blow of watching this film – no beautiful musical score, no magical rescue and no story of redemption. It’s an intense and immersive experience with a the visceral immediacy it provokes that is ultimately necessary. Truly unforgettable.