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Son of Saul

Directed by Laszlo Nemes

Hungary, 2015

HOME, 1 May 2016

Son of Saul

This film represents a noble attempt to grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, to look upon it afresh.

It is a terrifying film despite the fact that the horror and brutality is blurred or off-camera or just on the periphery of vision. Clearly, an intentional decision: this Nemes being a director for whom aesthetics is ethics. You recall Luc Moullet’s astounding statement: ‘Morality is a tracking shot.’

Saul the man is a slave worker at Auschwitz. He scrubs and disinfects the gas chambers. He drags away the dead to be cremated. He collects their clothes and valuables, keeping some to barter for favours. He shovels ash from the ovens. All the soulless mechanism of genocide and mass murder is his labour.

Then one day Saul sees the body of a child, perhaps his son, and he is stricken. He becomes an onen, one of the onenim. His sacred obligation (mitzvah) to attend to the niftar, this niftar, one released from this life among so very many, fractures his world, overrides all.

There is a dread absurdity about Saul’s urgency to honour and purify the dead boy (we see him providing tahara at one juncture) when set amidst such industrial carnage. On reflection, though, that is the point: the contrast between a tradition of ritual that honours the dead (shivah) and a process of mechanised mass murder where all human feeling is absent.

The cost for Saul and his comrades is high. He has chosen to serve the dead, not the living, and when they carry out an escape he weighs them down. That’s the danger inherent in any liminal state: you are not of this world. Remember, there are some who never got to sing Vir zinen doh. Mourn for them.

I found certain scenes, especially at the close, problematic. Yet still, a great film.