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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Son of Saul movie review: how to remain human

Son of Saul green light

Did you think you had heard all the unbearable stories about the Holocaust? You hadn’t. Hard to watch, but an essential installment of Holocaust cinema.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Did you think you had heard all the awful unbearable stories about the Holocaust? Haha *sob*, you hadn’t. Here’s one about a Jewish man, Saul (Géza Röhrig, in a heartbreaking feature debut), in an unnamed Nazi concentration camp who has bargained for a few extra months of life by agreeing to work on a crew that ushers new arrivals at the camp into the “showers” — all the while assuring everyone that hot soup is waiting on the other side and imploring them to “remember your hook number” where you left your stuff — and then cleaning away the bodies afterward. You know, to make ready for the next train of arrivals. First-time feature director László Nemes keeps the horror from being too soul-destroying — though it is still almost unbearable — by offering us Saul’s intimate perspective on his work: he keeps his head down and his eyes averted, and the camera stays very close on his stolid face, avoiding acknowledging what is happening in the background in the same way that Saul is doing himself, because how else do you retain your sanity in such a situation? Here’s another way: when a boy in his early teens initially survives being gassed and dies soon after, separate from all the anonymous bodies piled like cordwood and his humanity intact even in death, Saul claims the kid as his lost son and insists on finding a rabbi to conduct a proper burial. Is this Saul’s actual child? It seems unlikely. It seems much more probable that Saul, in a sort of grief-stricken derangement, has fixated on this boy and the notion of treating him decently even in death as a way to cling to his own humanity. Saul’s quest to do right by this child consumes the rest of the film, and he is relentless. The film is relentless, too: emotionally and psychologically brutal, difficult to watch but an essential installment of Holocaust cinema nevertheless. For we mustn’t ever, ever forget what humanity is capable of. At either extreme, from cruelty to endurance.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Son of Saul for its representation of girls and women.

green light 4.5 stars

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Son of Saul (2015)
US/Can release: Dec 18 2015
UK/Ire release: Apr 29 2016 (VOD same day)

MPAA: rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • Kathy_A

    So few of the Sonderkommandos survived the Holocaust (most of the survivors were from Auschwitz) that their stories tended to not be heard as much. The other two extermination camps that had at least a few dozen prisoners survive the war, Sobibor and Treblinka, didn’t have any Sonderkommandos escape since they were kept apart from the rest of the prisoners, who were the ones organizing the revolts that got them out of the camp. (The other three camps, Belzec, Majdanek, and Chelmno, had only four Jewish survivors in total after the war.)

    One of the most gut-wrenching interviews with one of these men is in the film Shoah, in which he tells about doing that work and then reaching the breaking point. He decides to stay in the gas chamber with those he had just escorted to the “showers,” but the people all tell him to leave the room and survive.

    I’ve already heard about Son of Saul elsewhere, and I am definitely hoping to see it soon.

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