Son of Saul

Posted on January 14, 2016 at 5:56 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
Profanity: Racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and deeply disturbing Holocaust atrocities including shooting, gas chambers, graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 25, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01BZBOA30
son of saul
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

As we move past the time when there are living witnesses to the Holocaust who can tell us their stories, we need more than ever voices like first-time writer/director László Nemes to tell the stories. I know there are those who will shrug sheepishly and say that they just can’t handle another one.  But each story is about a singular individual who had a singular experience.  And this Oscar-winning drama is distinctively different in subject matter and in the form of storytelling. It deserves careful attention.

The Nazis took more than lives in the concentration camps. They took identities and they took souls. Saul (Géza Röhrig), the title character, is a Hungarian Jew in an unnamed extermination camp near the end of the war. Because Hungarian dictator Miklos Horthy cooperated with the Nazis but did not allow them to take the 800,000 Hungarian Jews until he could no longer prevent it in 1944 (see Walking with the Enemy), Saul has only been there a short time. Throughout the movie, the camera is close to his face or at his shoulder as he numbly tries to hold on to his life and to some sense of himself amidst the horrific slaughter and nightmarish chaos all around him. We get only glimpses.

In the very first moments, we see him standing silently as a reassuring German voice tells the new arrivals that there will be jobs and food for them, as soon as they clean off in a shower. They leave everything they brought with them, clothes, jewels, money, photos, in the outer room and then, naked, walk into the gas chamber, where they are killed.

What happens to Saul is worse than death. He is a Sonder-kommando, a prisoner forced to assist in this process, from making the new arrivals feel a little less hopeless to ransacking their belongings and removing the remains, which the Nazis will not dignify with the term “bodies.” They are called “pieces.” And he is forced to be a part of it.

Somehow, a boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, survives the gas chamber. He is still breathing. So he is sent to the doctor (another prisoner) to be killed and autopsied, to help make the killing process more efficient.

And that is Saul’s breaking point. He becomes convinced that the boy is his son, though it appears likely he never had a child. This may be manifestation of trauma-induced delusion, or it may be an adaptive mechanism to restore his shattered sense of the world. He knows he cannot save this both in life. But perhaps in death he can do one kindness and provide the boy with a religious burial, away from the discarded “pieces.” Increasingly desperate, contrary to his previous flat affect, Saul seeks a rabbi who can say the mourner’s prayer over the boy. Throughout the film, we see quick glimpses of the ways other prisoners hold on to some tiny element of control. For some, it may be keeping a record. For Saul, who seems to see very little of what is going on around him, it is giving a boy a better death.

This insistence on a sacred burial at any cost is a direct link to Sophocles’ 442 BC play Antigone, the final chapter in the Oedipus trilogy. Three thousand years of human history later, and someone is still finding meaning by refusing to make one final compromise.

Parents should know that this is a Holocaust movie with scenes of Nazi brutality and disturbing themes and images including gas chambers, shooting, suffocation, and dead bodies, some nude.

Family discussion: How does the style of this film help to convey the experience of the concentration camp? Why was this boy so important to Saul? What were the special issues faced by the Sonder-kommandos and the doctor?

If you like this, try: “Conspiracy,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Labyrinth of Lies”

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