Well, that was cheery.
Alright, it’s hard to imagine many Holocaust movies being fun, but this one so effectively creates the subjective reality of one man’s need to do one thing right in the middle of a near literal Hell on Earth. Every piece of the film is designed to enhance the audience’s immersion into this world, and it’s almost entirely done in closeup without seeing much of the horrors of the death camp directly.
In Nazi death camps there were a group of prisoners called the Sonderkommando who helped guide the new prisoners in, disrobed them, piled up their possessions, cleaned the gas chambers, and helped feed the fires of the crematoriums. Saul, our main character, is one of the Sonderkommando, and the way the director, László Nemes, the first time Hungarian director, choses to follow him is kind of brilliant. As I wrote, nearly the whole film is done in close up with a very shallow depth of focus. We follow Saul, often from the back, only barely able to discern the bodies, mud, and death that surrounds him, but it implies how Saul survives in his day to day life. He can’t focus on the people he’s helping to marshal into the gas chambers. He’s inward facing, just doing what he has to do in order to avoid the gas chamber himself. The film sells that to the audience through that shallow depth of field so that we know what’s going on, but we’re not focusing on it. It’s such a great way to film the particular story.
Saul, as he says late in the film, doesn’t consider him or any of the other Sonderkommando to be alive. They’re already dead, but something changes within him when he sees a small boy survive the gas chamber only to be suffocated by the Nazi doctor. Saul clings to this boy’s body, begging the prisoner doctor to help him preserve the body from the furnace so that he can bury it properly. The movie is Saul’s day and a half long quest to find a rabbi to say the Kaddish and give this boy a proper burial (which is apparently not necessary for a proper Jewish burial, but what matters is Saul’s quest to make it happen, not the specifics of the ritual). He goes from rabbi to rabbi in the camp among the Sonderkommando, all of whom are hiding their status as rabbi out of fear of the Nazis. When Saul approaches one he doesn’t know, the rabbi, realizing that others know he’s a rabbi, immediately tries to drown himself.
And why go through all of this? As Saul does this, the other Sonderkommando are planning an insurrection against the Nazi prison guards, a plan that Saul gets forced into contributing to when he retrieves gunpowder from one of the women sorting through the possessions of the victims of the gas chambers. Should he be concerned with the burial of a boy already dead or more concerned with helping his fellow living Jews find a way to survive? As he says, he thinks they’re all already dead, so he wants to do one thing right. I don’t think the movie has a real answer for which way he should have gone because Saul isn’t following the correct procedure for the burial on the one hand and the insurrection has little to no chance of any sort of success on the other. He’s in the middle of Hell with no good choices, and he chooses to do one small thing he can do.
One thread that runs through the film is that Saul calls the boy his son. I didn’t think that the boy was his son at all, but reading up on the film afterwards I saw that early drafts of the film (which don’t count, only the final product counts) made it explicit that it actually was his son. I prefer the reading that the boy is just some boy and that Saul desperately needs to do something good before the Nazis liquidate the current crop of Sonderkommando and he loses all chance of doing anything right again. So, while Saul insists to his fellow Sonderkommando that the boy is his son, no one believes him and the movie never gives a solid answer. I chose my interpretation there.
This movie is harsh and ugly in all the best ways. It puts the audience right in the middle of the reality of the death camps without ever breaking from its method for aesthetic or plot reasons. The central performance by Géza Röhrig is understated, haunting, and perfect for the part of Saul. I loved this film. It is one of the great Holocaust films.