Of all the films I have seen that deal with the Holocaust, none comes close to the overwhelmingly horrendous slaughter house atmosphere captured in the Hungarian “Son of Saul”, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. We are taken into the bowels of hell in this story located in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer, keeps tight focus on the murderous activity as Jews are brought there to be exterminated. It is as if we, the audience are seated in the midst of the madness, thereby getting a painful, close-up look at human behavior gone mad.

Géza Röhrig plays Hungarian Jew Saul Ausländer, who works as a Sonderkommando, one of those whose job is to escort victims into the gas chambers and then get rid of the bodies that pile up. The ghastly task keeps Saul and others doing the work to stay alive, until it will become their turn to die when they are no longer considered useful. We witness the constant wheeling and dealing to survive by one’s wits and bribery.

Sometimes autopsies are done on the bodies for medical exploration. One day Saul sees a young boy lying dead. He believes the child to be his son, which we can take more as a fixation than reality. Saul becomes consumed by the idea that he must protect the body so that the boy can be given a proper Jewish burial, and he begins a hunt for a rabbi to say the proper prayers, all the while conniving to hide the body and stay alive.

It is an understandable human obsession, but in effect an insane determination an insane situation. With death all around, desperation abounding, corpses accumulating, newcomers gassed, all shown us in close-up, we in the audience are escorted into this almost imaginable situation that appears utterly real, and one can sympathize with Saul and hope he succeeds. The principled gesture for a single dead boy strikes a lone note of humanity in the midst of total carnage and is deeply touching in the face of such overall futility.

The acting is consistently excellent to the extent that we can believe the characters and be appalled at what they are going through. Above all, “Son of Saul” reminds us anew of what hell those caught in the mass killings endured, whether they perished or managed to survive. Don’t be put off by a reluctance to subject yourself to another Holocaust film. Artistically and historically, “Son of Saul” assumes tremendous importance. Posted November 1, 2015.

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