Review: The Unbearable Secrets in New Film 'Son of Saul'

Géza Röhrig as Saul in "Son of Saul." Sony Pictures Classics

Son of Saul, the new film from the young Hungarian director László Nemes, opens and closes with scenes of the forest. There is little natural beauty in the intervening 107 minutes, for the film is set almost entirely in a crematorium of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as well as the putrid burial pits and ramshackle barracks that surround it. There is one other scene when the camera pans to the iconic birches of the Slavic countryside, but the film is otherwise occupied with the infernal machinery of genocide. It is both cruel and courageous for the camera to return to nature after nearly two hours of human carnage and thus remind us of something changeless and immutable about the world, the lushness of life amidst the rapacity of death. My mind, at least, went right away to W.H. Auden's famous meditation on Pieter Brueghel's painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, where the poet notes "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster." By continuing, the world confounds.

Son of Saul (Saul Fia, in the original Hungarian) is a movie from which it will be very difficult to turn away from, though it will be nearly as difficult to watch. The premise is almost perversely simple. The Hungarian prisoner Saul Ausländer is a Sonderkommando, one of the Jewish inmates tasked with ferrying people into the gas chambers and, after they have been killed, dispensing with their bodies ("pieces," as the SS guards call them) in the ovens that reduced a million lives to gray ash. In the opening scene, Saul finds a boy who has survived the gas chamber. The boy is promptly suffocated by an SS medic—really, just a killer in a lab coat—but Saul is determined to give him a proper Jewish burial.

Jewish burial is supposed to take place within 24 hours of death, and Son of Saul is tacitly informed by this ancient urgency: the action of the film spans something like a day and a half. Religious custom aside, Saul does not have much time. While he is able to convince the doctor, a fellow prisoner, to save the boy's body from autopsy, he knows the reprieve is short-lived. The body remains in his living quarters as he searches for a rabbi to perform the proper rites. Meanwhile, his fellow Sonderkommando are plotting a rebellion. They are Geheimnisträger, "holders of secrets," and their intimate knowledge of the Final Solution means they can never be anything but short-term labor. Aware that their hour looms, they decide to fight their way out of the concentration camp. Saul is recruited into the rebellion, but his yearning to attend to the dead boy distracts him from this mission.

The role of Saul belongs to Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian actor and poet who lives in New York City. The subject matter is challenging enough, but Röhrig must also contend with Nemes's relentless camera, which is always either perched on his shoulder or placed in front of his face, but always focused on him. There are many naked bodies in the film, but most are hazily rendered, for Saul has ceased to see them as distinct corpses until very recently animated by life: They are just so much flesh he must move from one place to another. There is no bird's-eye-view of the whole camp, and even the outside of the crematorium is never glimpsed in full. Röhrig's face is in nearly every frame: his dimpled nose, his brooding eyes, the bruise at the left edge of his mouth, the melancholy turn of his lips. Most actors yearn to give their characters life; Röhrig has managed something far more difficult, endowing Saul with a convincing lifelessness. He shepherds fellow Jews into the gas chambers, then stands there listening to their screams, in what may be the most horrifying half-minute of cinema I've ever experienced. His lack of affect is not a pathology; it is a necessary strategy of survival.

The boy Saul wants to bury is a MacGuffin. We know nothing about him, and though Saul tells one prisoner—a would-be rebel frustrated at how distracted Saul has become—that the boy is his son, the claim is transparently untrue. But the lack of information does not translate into a lack of feeling: By surviving the gas chamber, if only for a few minutes, the boy triumphed over his executioners. They managed to kill him, of course, but by restoring the boy's dignity, Saul will restore the dignity of everyone still living in the camps, as well as those who have already perished.

There was, in fact, a Sonderkommando rebellion in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, and it ended in the only way it could have. Saul seems to know that their crude scheming can never overrun the SS; he instead sublimates all of his earthly hopes in the funerary rites for the young man. "You abandon the living for the dead," a frustrated plotter tells Saul as the whole plan seems to go astray. I rather think that he is like the modern-day version of Antigone, who in the play by Sophocles yearns to bury her slain brother Polyneices, whom Creon has left to lie outside the walls of Thebes. "Leave me to my absurdity," she says defiantly.

Son of Saul won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, though it is very unlike the kind of Holocaust films we have come to expect and embrace: Schindler's List, Life Is Beautiful. Those iconic films found beauty and grace in the Nazi abattoir. Nemes was interested in something more truthful. His concentration camp is loud and frenetic, cacophonous with the languages of European Jewry, so that the prisoners often have a hard time understanding one another. The German shouting is incessant, unbearable, hideous. The crematorium complex is a humid, clanging factory of death, where drudgery is punctuated by swooping terror. The film's most striking scene is of recently arrived prisoners driven to the fire pits, where they are killed in an orgy of violence. Only in Apocalypse Now—the village raid scene, in particular, the one that famously opens with Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries"—is the madness of war rendered in such horrid beauty.

Nemes's biggest achievement is that he manages to tell a small story about the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. He has taken Hemingway's advice to eschew the monumental and shun the epic, so that none of the usual tropes of Holocaust cinema are here—no scenes of terrified families being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto, no mawkish violin chords as those same families pass through the gates of Auschwitz. Son of Saul has less in common with, say, a feature film like Schindler's List than it does with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel set in the Soviet gulag, relentlessly focused on the narrow experience of a single prisoner. To make suffering into art requires talent, but to show suffering in all its horrible mundanity, as both Nemes and Solzhenitsyn do, requires some rarer and darker skill for which I am not sure there is a name.

Primo Levi and many other Holocaust survivors have debated whether the Sonderkommando were complicit with the SS by shepherding Jews to death. Nemes is not interested in that question, which is a relief, for the moral quandaries of the Holocaust are inexhaustible. The more intriguing question is why Saul is so concerned with the burial of a nameless boy, who meant no more to him than the thousands of others he has watched go up in smoke. Witnessing the boy's last gasp triggers in him a sense of duty more immense even than the desire for freedom. Röhrig never overplays his character's suffering—or his fortitude. Both are there, though, in the pained squint of his eyes. At times, it seems less a performance than a ghostly visitation.

Many films are very good without being very necessary: I am always game for a viewing of Anchorman, but I am not sure that the world is edified by the existence of Ron Burgundy, in all its mustachioed glory. The world does need Saul Ausländer. There are refugees streaming through Eastern Europe on trains, welcomed by some but despised by many (especially by the same Hungarians who eagerly sent a half-million Jews to the camps 70 years ago). There were troops in Paris, after the attacks there in November, and gunfights with radicals in Belgium. Russia, once again in the grip of a tyrant, has invaded Ukraine and frequently taunts the West. A rogue militant group rises in Syria with the aim of creating a caliphate, while Israel stands ready to do battle with Iran. Serious people talk of World War III.

Son of Saul is not a message movie, but its message is impossible to miss. The previous century gave us gas chambers and nuclear bombs; the warfare of this young century has already yielded drone strikes and cyberattacks, and there will surely be fresh ways to kill, maim and deprive. The secrets the Sonderkommando bear are not just the particulars of how the concentration camps worked but something even more terrifying about the dark chambers of the human heart.