War camp drama fails to enthral by Richard Jones

A look at Son Of Saul…


JUST about every critic, including the Academy Award judges, loved the concentration camp epic directed by Hungarian Laszlo Nemes.

The focus is on ordered and systematic genocide as the German SS carries out Berlin’s orders to exterminate Jewish, political and gypsy prisoners.

We see the gas chamber extermination procedure and all its later processes – the collection of the victims’ clothing, shoes and suitcases followed by the burning of the bodies.

I think we all know what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald and similar camps. What Nemes has done is for us to focus on a day-and-a-half in the life of Hungarian Jew Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig).

Perhaps my disappointment came about because of the director’s tight gaze. He had to use the sound track to provide us with extra information.

Whatever, it really didn’t grab me as, say, the Spielberg epic Schindler’s List or The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Or even Sophie’s Choice.

All of them were also based on life in and around SS-controlled concentration camps.

In this film Saul is a sonderkommando or member of a work unit saved from the gas chambers only to be forced to work manning and unloading them.

It wasn’t a secure job. Every few months the SS routinely executed dozens of sonderkommandos and in one scene here we see one of Saul’s bosses drawing up a hit list of 70 of his men as ordered by a SS officer.

Saul and his team work with manic energy as the newly arrived prisoners, the majority of them Jewish, are herded towards what they believe are showers.

“Hurry up and get undressed. If you are slow the soup we’ve made for you will get cold,” the PA announces.

The murderous ritual ends with Saul and his team bracing the gas chamber doors as the struggles and screams build from the inside.

Soon after back on comes the PA. “Move the pieces,” the sonderkommandos are ordered.
It’s then that Saul recognises one body. He’s convinced it’s his son.

I thought there was still a tiny semblance of life left in the teenaged boy as Saul secretes him away and then scurries around trying to find a rabbi.

Saul needs a rabbi to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. It says something about his character that Saul wants to properly bury a body in this place of horror and not have the boy despatched to the ovens or the burning pits.

Saul’s search for a rabbi takes him past riverbanks piled high with ashes. He ignores other sonderkommandos like Abraham (Levente Molnar) who is assisting with the preparations for an uprising and Biedermann (Urs Rechn) who’s trying to smuggle out photographs and written reports about what’s happening in their camp.

Saul actually then worms his way through the camp guard structure to the women’s compound where he’s given powder for Abraham’s group to turn into explosives.

But his stash is lost when he’s collared and forced to work with the sonderkommando group shovelling human ashes into a river.

We don’t really see much of the German SS officers. Saul comes into brief contact with Oberscharfuhrer (senior squad leader) Busch and is discovered, and briefly mocked, by another group of German officers in the morgue before being sent on his way.

Saul’s search becomes obsessive. Perhaps Nemes wants us to view the rabbi hunt as not one of semi-madness, but as one of redemption.

Abraham’s uprising eventually does come to fruition and even though Saul’s told ‘you failed the living for the dead’ his search to find the right person to send off the boy he’d recognised is quite heroic.

Son Of Saul won this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film.



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