Every machine is made up of smaller parts working together. László Nemes’ Son of Saul looks at the mass-extermination machine that was Auschwitz, in 1944. His extraordinarily confident debut feature tackles difficult subject matter, and from a fresh angle: two days in the life of one of the death camp’s cogs.
The Hungarian Saul (Géza Röhrig) works in the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners who toil for a few months in the death houses before being killed. Their daily survival depends on their efficiency in killing their own people.
The searing and intimate film opens during the course of a normal workday. Saul hustles prisoners from the train into the promised “hot showers.” As screams come from the gas chambers, the Sonderkommando sort through the discarded clothing, separating valuables. The dead are pulled from the chamber, which is scrubbed clean. The bodies — called “pieces” by the Germans — are taken to a crematorium, and still later, those ashes are carted to the river for disposal. It’s a brutally efficient process of completely disappearing people.
But in the course of this one morning, Saul discovers a boy in the gas chamber whom he claims to recognize; the relationship is not explicitly clarified, nor does it matter. He hides the corpse and seeks among the condemned for a rabbi to provide a proper burial. This act of sparing just one “piece” from the indignity of the mass cremation is undertaken in the tiny moments that the death machine sputters or rests.
Throughout the film, the camera stays close to Saul, as if hovering on his shoulder, so we are privy to both his perspective and his reactions. The focus is shallow, so that backgrounds are vaguely out of eyesight. Sounds and dialogue beyond Saul’s immediate areas are also somewhat muffled. It reinforces Saul’s coping mechanism, as he just robotically undertakes his job, emotionless, and without the will (or capacity) to take in the wider horror. Similarly, there is no backstory nor much broader narrative exposition beyond what is happening that day.
Son of Saul is as grim as you’d expect from such material, but it is also resolutely affirming. People do live through the unimaginable and, like Saul, can find a way to reconnect to their humanity. Keeping the dead boy from the crematorium is foolhardy and ultimately inconsequential, but it is also an act of defiance and love. It is a small gesture that restores the humane order lost in the genocide, and grants Saul a transcendent victory over the evil he has been conscripted into.