“You failed the living for the dead”
It’s stunning how all these years later a Holocaust film can come along and prove wholly unique from the myriad examples we’ve already received and lauded. But László Nemes‘ directorial debut Saul Fia [Son of Saul] does exactly that. Not only does he capture the brutality by entering into the bowels of 1944 Auschwitz amongst the men and women going to their deaths in the showers or the pits, he somehow exposes the numbness felt by those forced to assist the Nazis in their goals that lost their souls in the process. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is one such man—a Sonderkommando bearing witness, herding the walking dead, and cleaning for the next wave. Dead inside and days from extermination, the sound of a boy’s cough awakens him.
Nemes (a Béla Tarr disciple) and co-writer Clara Royer decide to show the futility and tragedy of these camps rather than focus on survival as so many other Hollywood-type narratives feel necessary in order to engage their audience. No, here the only bright light comes from a man who has given up so long ago that he no longer even looks at the bodies before or after their early demise. Saul is shown as though acting within a trance as soon as the shallow depth of field reveals him as our main focus—an amorphous blob blurred into the foliage before his approach settles into the camera’s small section of clarity. Everything but his dead eyes remains blurry as screams, train cars, and people chaotically move around him.
Rather than see what he sees in a sort of first-person vantage, we simply watch him as he travels throughout the compound. Saul silently does his duty so as not to enrage his superior officers, taking care to never look them or their victims in the eye. He helps the new transport disrobe while Nazis explain how everything will be okay—they’re just taking a shower before teatime and a face-to-face to explain what happens next. He braces against the doors as they wail in agony and fear, mindlessly and hastily collects the garments left behind, and soon after drags bodies to the conveyor belts that lead to the ovens. He scrubs the floor, searches for valuables, and steers clear of his fellow Sonderkommando biding time.
But suddenly everything changes. A young boy survives the gas, an aberration the Nazis hope to study so they may perfect their extermination factory. Saul is lifted as though from a fog—barely as his actions remain emotionless, his drive to action emboldened by a sense of purpose long since absent. He volunteers to take the body to the autopsy room, bargains in hopes to save him from the flames, and admits the child is his own. He cannot find definitive proof as clothes and passports are collected and destroyed in well-oiled haste, but his heart confirms it. Maybe the boy’s a symbol of the countless Jewish youth he helped murder under duress. Maybe the time to repent had arrived and this child provided him his chance.
Now the film officially begins. Rather than watch Saul go through the motions and make Nemes’ film a process-based depiction of slaughter—a cold, clinical study of pure evil—humanity somehow sneaks in to offer hope no matter how hopeless it may prove in the end. Everything Saul does from this point on is to protect the boy’s soul as he was unable to save his own. He volunteers to help his Sonderkommando superiors, engages his fellow prisoners, and bargains with those he has no right to bargain with. He becomes embroiled in a rebellion plot, transforms from hero to pariah and back again when his primary goal negates or complements the group’s mission. Every ounce of strength used is to find a rabbi and bury this boy.
It’s a wildly simplistic conceit giving the filmmakers opportunity to show everything that happened inside the camp—details culled from buried notebooks of the Sonderkommando only discovered years later. The action is fast-paced without lull as Saul ping-pongs from one group to the next either because a superior takes him to perform a different task or because he needs a reason to continue searching for a rabbi willing to do more than pray. He’s a desperate man with nothing to lose as rumors state his regimen under Biederman (Urs Rechn) is set for execution. So he lies, cheats, risks the lives of others, and brashly forfeits his own well being to save an innocent soul—a label he and his fellow Sonderkommando can no longer claim.
Even though his heroism is a symbolic gesture on paper, it’s much more in reality. This boy signifies a hope for a future lost. To save him in the eyes of God is to do something important. That’s not to say a bid at rebellion isn’t a crucial form of defiance or that taking photos of the extermination process to smuggle out isn’t key to bringing in Allied forces for rescue. It doesn’t even mean that Saul has given up. His goals simply don’t quite congeal with the others—their quest for self-preservation in the physical world proving inferior opposite his desire to be cleansed in that of the spiritual realm. After months of horror the potential for a single second of grace intoxicates and invigorates him.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a better depiction of Auschwitz’s nightmare than what Nemes delivers. Beyond the passion of men like Levente Molnár‘s Abraham, compassion of Sándor Zsótér‘s Dr. Nyiszli, or feral greed of Kamil Dobrowolski‘s Mietek exists the Nazi machine. To read about the numbers extinguished is one thing, to watch the precision is another. And to do so four months into Saul’s sentence so that he unfeelingly goes through the motions takes it one step further. We don’t have anyone to empathize with as they empathize with the deceased. It’s merely fact—bodies upon bodies, “pieces” sent to the flames to be removed so more can replace them. What’s scarier than witnessing the willfully complicit? Experiencing just how easy and efficient the process itself became.
And none of it works without a stirring performance by Röhrig, a writer who hasn’t acted since a TV mini-series twenty-five years ago. Nemes hardly leaves his unflinchingly stoic face, his Saul epitomizing the futility and heartbreaking defeat of humanity that the Nazis systematically instilled. He has become a robot partaking in tasks far removed from the reality of them—scrubbing and shoveling and fixing as though every step didn’t assist in transforming genocide into occupation. There are more classically drawn heroes fighting in God’s name or despite Him, but we’ve seen those stories of resilience before. Röhrig’s Saul is instead a beacon of stripped down honesty, a man defeated into a state of delusion who forces himself to remember the grace of God within an unyielding Hell.
 Géza Röhrig as Saul. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Levente Molnar as Abrahám. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Géza Röhrig as Saul. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics