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The Inhumane Monstrosity Of Nazi Death Camps Is Made Intimate In 'Son Of Saul'

courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Left to right: Christian Harting as Oberscharführer Busch and Géza Röhrig as Saul, ";s

Son of Saul doesn't look at the Nazi death camps — it absorbs you into a camp. It's the closest attempt I've seen to create what it might have been like to be there. Nothing's explained; nothing's coherent. You have to figure it out as you follow one major character in that fundamentally indescribable horror.

The movie starts out of focus and only clears when Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew, gets close to the camera. Most of the picture just sits on Saul's face or the back of his head.

He's a sonderkommando in an unnamed death camp, meaning he's a prisoner who lives a few months extra because he does tasks like getting people to undress, herding them into the gas chambers and then pulling out the bodies and bringing them to the crematoria.

Saul darts around in constant desperate motion, but because the shot is so tight on him, and the rest is out of focus, you can't make out much of what's going on. There's little sense of physical space; what you see is dank, cramped, dark and dusty.

People yell constantly; the place bristles with commands to hurry up, to drag the bodies faster, to rush somewhere else – sometimes to pull coins or jewelry out of clothing left behind. With a new load of "things," as the newly arrived human beings are called, insidious voices tell them to rush, to strip down to get a good warm shower and the hot meal afterward. Saul helps herd the people into the promised shower; he helps close and bolt the big metal doors, and as he walks away, he tries not to hear the screams of those people being gassed.

Then it's on to other tasks.

Bodies have to be burned; there's a backup at the crematoria. There's stripping, sorting and looting to do. It boggles the mind to see – Son of Saul shows this – the sheer human labor it takes to kill a mass of other human beings. Digging, lugging, pulling; it's constant work. And all the while, Saul knows that at some point in the near future, his number will be up, and he will be gassed, dragged and burned.

One complication is that the sonderkommanos are planning a revolt, so in the middle of the ceaseless rushing on Nazi commands, the prisoners whisper to each other, plan their revolt, make deals with each other. Again, the camera is so close to Saul that life seems a constant blur, a relentless effort to figure out what's going on and get a grip on what can't be gripped.

Some accounts of the death camps explain that the people about to be killed never had a chance to collect themselves or their thoughts well enough to resist. They were dragged out of their homes and shoved onto trains or trucks. The time between their arrival at places like Treblinka and their deaths might be just a couple of hours. So, the people were off-balance and couldn't gain their senses. That was part of the malevolent Nazi genius.

The side of the film that doesn't have the effect that maybe it should is Saul's obsession with a boy he believes is his son. He recognizes the body in the haze of catastrophe and chaos, which makes everything hard to comprehend. He wants to bury the boy with something of a Jewish ritual. He searches for a rabbi. It seems bizarre given the circumstances and the perpetual motion machine that keeps the killing and burning process at full throttle.

The problem is how to depict horror that's beyond human ken. In the great documentary Shoah, Claude Lanzmann did it by showing only people and places in the present. Son of Saul can't quite make this one added bit of insanity effective in cinema because it may just be more than any filmmakers can handle.

Maybe that's the point.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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