Lawrence Toppman

See ‘Son of Saul’ – but just once

I am trying to think of a phrase that will make you see “Son of Saul.” This Oscar-nominated foreign film follows a Hungarian Jew who leads fellow prisoners into the gas chambers at a Nazi death camp, then disposes of their bodies. I don’t think calling it “one of the best movies released in 2015” will do, although it was.

“A unique piece of the Holocaust”? “A heart-rending story of a man in a nonhuman state”? “An examination of life in perpetual chaos”? “An exploration of religion in a world where God seems absent”?

It’s all those things. And like “12 Years a Slave,” “Requiem for a Dream” and other stunning movies I could never bear to sit through twice, I’m glad to have seen it once.

Hungarian writer-director László Nemes makes an extraordinary feature-length debut with this film, which requires us to put together bits of information and leaves us guessing at a few missing pieces. (He wrote the script with Clara Royer; it’s also her debut.)

We know two things for sure. Benumbed Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) works as a member of the Sonderkommandos (“special units”) at an unspecified camp, collecting clothes and valuables before naked Jews get murdered and then burying or burning the bodies. One day, he comes upon the corpse of the illegitimate son he hasn’t seen in years.

Saul has somehow been involved in an upcoming escape attempt; Sonderkommandos were regularly killed and replaced with other prisoners, and this batch has nothing to lose. Now he lets those duties slide, determined to find a rabbi and give the boy proper Jewish burial.

Nemes throws us into the maelstrom at once, without explanation. We see blurred bodies at the edge of the screen, waiting for disposal. We hear distant screams of the dying as Saul walks from room to room, like a minor functionary in Hell sorting out the damned. German officers bark orders; fellow prisoners run and shove; newcomers to the camp, battered and confused, stagger around.

The writers rarely show acts of violence. Instead, they pierce us with implied cruelty. As Jews hang up garments before entering the “showers,” an amiable German officer tells them to remember the number on the hook, so they can find their clothes afterward.

Nor do they ask us to sympathize fully with Saul. If he’s caught removing a body scheduled for autopsy, he’ll be executed; the boy will be cut up in any case, and the other prisoners’ dash for freedom may fail. But Saul’s better instincts, dormant for so long, overwhelm him. The only way he can bring the slightest meaning to his remaining days is to dedicate himself to this holy act.

Röhrig has just one previous screen credit, in a Hungarian miniseries from 1989. He doesn’t have to give a multifaceted performance here: Saul wears an expression of morose perplexity and whispers in a strangled voice most of the time. Only once does he allow himself a long, relatively broad smile, and it’s as disturbing as the grinning rictus of a dead man.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Son of Saul


Star: Géza Röhrig.

Director: László Nemes.

Length: 107 minutes.

Rating: R (disturbing violent content and some graphic nudity).