THE Hungarian Oscar-winning movie Son of Saul is one of the most unique films on the theme of the Holocaust. One single character leads the viewer through the filth and stench of the concentration camp; he shows the apathy of the damned and the everyday absurdity of the camp. The director of the film, Laszlo Nemes Jeles, avoids conventions and makes the viewer confront the camp, the greatest shame in recent European history.
A number of Hungarian works deal with fascism and the Holocaust, perhaps because the Hungarian Jewish symbiosis with society, culture and language made the unfolding events of persecution and murder especially shocking. The only Hungarian film to win the Oscar before Son of Saul was Mephisto in 1982. Based on Klaus Mann’s novel and directed by Istvan Szabo, Mephisto deals with the relationship between fascist power and art from the point of view of the German actor Gustav Grundgens. It focusses on the compromises and adjustments Grundgens made in the 1930s to further his career. In 2002, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz. His first novel, Fateless , deals with the concentration camp experience of a 14-year-old boy, Gyuri, who is arrested while travelling on a tram in the summer of 1944 and taken a few days later to Buchenwald, one of the largest camps near Weimar.
The German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 set in motion the full-scale persecution of Hungarian Jews. Of the 750,000 Hungarian people considered Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws in 1944, 600,000 fell victim to the Holocaust, most of them killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Forty-two thousand men were called up for labour in the Hungarian army, and they perished when they were forced to fight in the territory of Hungary or the Soviet Union without equipment or arms.
Son of Saul opens with blurred images. Birds are singing; all is green. The scene is blurred until the camera focusses on Saul and the red cross on his back that shows that he is the member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Sonderkommando , or “special squad”, was a group of prisoners who assisted the transport of people to the gas chambers. After closing the doors of the chambers, which were disguised as showers, the squad collected the money, jewellery, gold and other belongings of those killed, cleaned the walls and washed the floors, aired the rooms and carried die Stucke (“the pieces”), as the corpses were called in German, to the crematorium. The first shots in 4:3 aspect ratio, which brings the face in a special frame, show that the film focusses on one person and that the events are perceived entirely from his point of view.
Even though Son of Saul is defined as a Holocaust film, in many ways it counters the tradition of films on the Holocaust such as Schindler’s List , Life is Beautiful or The Pianist . It does not wish to paint a tableau about human suffering or to use narrative codes that deal with survival and heroism. As Nemes Jeles said: “These films try to say in space and time too much. Their language repeats, and the visual material too.”
Son of Saul is different. It chooses a claustrophobic narrow angle, selects a special perspective of two days in the main protagonist Saul Auslander’s (Geza Rohrig) life. Primo Levi describes the Sonderkommando in his book The Drowned and the Saved . Levi claims in the chapter “The Gray Zone” that the Nazis alleviated their guilt by making the Sonderkommando carry out the brutalities and the murders in the concentration camps. Gideon Greif’s book We Wept without Tears (2005) deals with the testimonies of men who were members of the Sonderkommando and who were themselves traumatised and shocked by “the encounter of heaps of human bodies”. They felt like “robots”, sickened by what they had to go through. Son of Saul shows how Saul takes people to the “shower”, carries bodies and scrubs the floor. The film remains at the level of the protagonist, who does his work in a state of apathy, in emotional numbness. Most of the shots, which the cameraman Matyas Erdely has taken from a distance of 60 centimetres, show Saul from the back, and his face is only visible when he has to make a decision. Rohrig said: “It is not about a role I play in the film, but about presence”, emphasising that it was hardly a role in the conventional sense. Rohrig added: “The position of people in the annihilation camps reminds one of the epidural numbness that one feels after anaesthetisation. Survival in the camp was only possible by concentrating on the next moment.” Saul’s apathy is only broken when he discovers the body of a boy who he claims is his son. From that point on, when he snatches the body from the morgue and searches for a rabbi to give him a Jewish funeral, the viewer can hear Saul’s enhanced breathing, and this together with the 4:3 aspect of the film means getting into the air of the concentration camp saturated with steam, gas and smoke.
Son of Saul is Nemes Jeles’ first full-length film, and he is probably the youngest director to make a film about the Holocaust. Nemes Jeles (born in 1977) is a member of the last generation able to meet Holocaust survivors, who are in his grandparents’ generation. The extermination of the Jews is a sensitive subject in Hungary, and whenever the theme surfaces, the dividing lines make themselves felt. In an interview to the weekly Saturday ( Szombat ), Nemes Jeles said that anti-Semitism was flourishing in Eastern Europe. Nemes Jeles studied history, international relations and screenwriting at college and he studied the sources dealing with the concentration camps. The Scrolls of Auschwitz (1985), published by the historian Bernard Ben Mark, contains the accounts written by concentration camp inmates of what was going on in the camps. These accounts were found between 1945 and 1980 buried in the crematoria area in Auschwitz. The scrolls give information about the workings of the death camps. An additional source of the film was Miklos Nyiszli’s book I was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant (1946), which depicts the functioning of gas chambers and crematoria. The book claims that some victims survived the gassing. Saul in the film gets permission from the doctor to spend time in the morgue with his dead son.
Rohrig studied film direction and Polish philology in Hungary after founding a punk band which was banned in the 1980s. Later, he took up Jewish theology in Israel and New York. While in some sources the Sonderkommando members were characterised as “half-victims” and “half-hangmen”, Rohrig emphasised in an interview in The Guardian that after reading The Scrolls of Auschwitz he did not have “the slightest doubt that the Sonderkommando were not just equally victimised but more victimised. They lived in the epicentre of hell. I think they deserve utmost respect. Some of them tried to make their way into the gas chambers instead.”
The film is based on concrete historical events: on October 7, 1944, the special squad that served at Crematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau rose up against the supervising soldiers. In the rebellion, 12 SS officers were wounded and three were killed. The prisoners who managed to escape were caught and killed. In Son of Saul , an order is given in the camp that a list of 300 names of the dispensable members of the special squad should be given so that they can be directed to some other workplace. The members of the Sonderkommando guess that this means they are to be executed, and that this is being done to prevent the secret of the murders and the crematoria from getting out. The film depicts the preparations the squad’s members make to break out from the camp, the photographs they take to register the reality of Auschwitz, and ultimately their execution after they are caught. Saul accompanies one of his fellow prisoners, Katz, who is going to take photographs, and on the excuse of repairing a lock he ensures that nobody disturbs Katz while he takes photographs. (Four photographs taken in Auschwitz showing women before execution survived and were smuggled out by the Polish Home Army but were not given enough importance as recordings of events in the camps. The first reports the Allies took seriously were the Vrba-Wetzler report of April 1944 sent to Switzerland and the Rosin-Mordowitz report of June 1944. These reports, which were given publicity by the Swiss Press, The New York Times and the BBC, were suppressed in many countries, and adequate action, including bombing the railway lines leading to Auschwitz, was not taken.)
Saul gets explosives that have been smuggled out of the women’s barracks by some women prisoners who worked in a munitions factory. The film’s narrative deals with the events of two days, the day before the uprising and the uprising itself. In the film, the events of the uprising are less important than Saul’s preoccupation with the funeral of his son and his search for a rabbi.
Saul comes from Ungvar, a town with an Orthodox Jewish community in the eastern part of Hungary, now in Ukraine. Saul’s family name is Auslander (foreigner, alien). While Saul deals with the boy’s body, takes it from the morgue, and finds a rabbi who will say the kaddish over the child, all other aims and events become alien, exterior to him. His mates are engaged in the exchanges of the night, cooking, discussion and prayer, but Saul’s activities and concentration are completely taken up with the idea of a funeral for his son. He carries the body while he flees and drags the rabbi along and he only crosses the river outside the camp because he is forced by the other members of the squad to carry on.
A funeral is considered meaningless and even absurd in the conditions of the camp and it is in contrast to the wishes of Saul’s squad mates. But the idea of the funeral lends meaning to Saul’s existence. In the camp where the rule of survival overwrites all other rules, the dignity of another person’s death becomes the objective and the meaning of Saul’s life. The contrast between the strategy and plans of the Sonderkommando and Saul’s purpose and activity makes the film brilliant.
The viewer is physically involved in the film. After the first blurred images, the depth of focus of vision and the specific quality of noises —the fall of a spade, the closing of a door, the sound of water—make it possible for the viewer to perceive the events clearly. The composer for the film, Laszlo Melis, uses music by Transylvanian Jews which was collected in the 1930s. The music highlights the focus on Saul and his plan. The last frames of the film have the first visible cutting. This is where the film turns to a somewhat traditional mode. The film ends with Saul smiling as he looks at a child in the forest who has managed to run away from the German officers pursuing the camp inmates. For Saul, death may mean release and absolution of the responsibility of last honours; for the other members of the Sonderkommando , it means the dignity of death after the failure of rebellion.
Margit Koves teaches Hungarian at Delhi University .