ByPaul Donovan, writer at
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Paul Donovan

I have seen many movies and documentaries about the Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust. But I have never seen a movie like Son of Saul before. Fascinating and terrifying, this Hungarian movie is a unique chapter in the stories of world history. Let's look at why this movie is so special... and important.

The subject is one of the most complicated - and least talked about - parts of the Holocaust.

The movie starts with a definition of the Sonderkommandos. These were concentration camp inmates, usually Jews, who were forced to help the German soldiers with the disposal of gas chamber victims. They only worked for a few months before they also were killed and replaced by a new batch of inmates.

It's based on real stories

Writer-director László Nemes found a book called The Scrolls of Auschwitz, which contained testimonies of Sonderkommandos. This sent him on several years of research and help from historians, until he came up with a script.

The gas chamber and crematorium were re-created for the film according to the blueprints of the actual rooms.

The plot is tragic from the first scene

The movie is about a Hungarian Jew named Saul, who is a Sonderkommando. He helps escort fellow Jews into the gas chambers, goes through their clothing while they are dying in the other room, and then pulls the dead bodies out of the chamber to get it ready for the next batch.

One day, Saul notices that one of the dead bodies is his own son.

The movie shows the entire process of killing the Jews, from humans to gas chamber, to ashes.

The entire rest of movie is about Saul trying to find a way to give his son a proper Jewish burial, without showing any emotion or letting anybody know what he's doing. So part of the film shows Saul sneaking into different parts of the camp, or taking on different jobs, in order to find a rabbi. Since he is a Sonderkommando, he is least conspicuous when he's handling the dead bodies. So we see the whole horrific system at work, from beginning to end.

The movie shows Jewish resistance in the concentration camps.

During Saul's quest, he stumbles onto a conspiracy of fellow inmates trying to blow up the camp and escape. The inmates enlist Saul's help and get him to go on several errands. But he's only paying partial attention to what's going on or what he's doing, because he is completely focused on doing right by his son.

The movie was shot in a very unique way.

The film was shot in a very small aspect ratio, with a narrow field of vision. It basically consists of close up shots of the characters - usually Saul. The camera sometimes flows around the camp, following the characters, so we get a creepy feeling that we're there, a member of the camp. This is a very unusual way to make a film, but it's an absolutely brilliant. While Saul fills the frame, you can see the atrocities taking place around and behind them, just slightly out of focus. And just like that, you understand what's going on in his head. He is so numb to his work, and so passionate about his son, that everything else, no matter how horrifying, becomes part of the background.

The sound and languages in the film are an important element.

The movie is from Hungary, and is about a Hungarian, so there are subtitles when Saul talks. But eight different languages are spoken in the film, and Nemes insisted on casting actors who spoke their own language. So much of the film is not translated for us, because Saul himself doesn't understand what people are saying. Even when dialogue is translated for us, it is quiet, lurching, and spoken in short phrases and half-sentences, much like inmates would do if they were trying to communicate without drawing attention to themselves.

Trying to whisper while mopping up blood is hard.
Trying to whisper while mopping up blood is hard.

This is not a melodrama.

It would be easy to turn this movie into an emotionally manipulative story that just tries to make you feel terrible for the inmates and cry about how pathetic their situation is. But this movie doesn't go that route. These men are survivors. They are in perhaps the worst conditions it is possible for people to be in, but they have lives and motives. They still have a sense of self. Any emotions you feel during the course of the film are natural human responses to the situation, not a plea for pity. Part of the triumph of the film in this aspect are the performances of all the actors. I was completely engrossed in the story and lost track of the fact that they were acting.

The movie won multiple awards.

This movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It won 25 more awards around the world. And it deserved every single one of them.

Son of Saul is a heartbreaking tragedy, and a tribute to human survival. It takes the grand horror of WWII and narrows it to a laser focus on one man. Paradoxically, this expands our knowledge of the topic, and of human passion. It's an important contribution to Holocaust history, and while it's hard to watch, it should be required viewing for people interested in the topic.

The trailer:

What did you think? Is this a sensitive and human treatment of a delicate subject, or is it overhyped? Let us know!


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