Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film Son of Saul has been referred to as the newest masterpiece of Hungarian cinema since its premier at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in 2015. One thing should be noted, though: Son of Saul is not only a Holocaust movie – its moral and universal message is just as important as the precise presentation of the deepest pit of the true earthly hell.
In the 20th century Hungary lived through a long period of devastation. We lost one million soldiers in the First World War, and two-thirds of our territory in the Treaty of Versailles, after which a far right regime rose to power following the ideology of Nazi Germany and Italy. Later the Second World War broke out, followed by the Soviet oppression and, finally, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by the Soviet Union (for further details I recommend European Award Winner for Best Picture Sunshine by István Szabó). The Holocaust stands right in the middle of this series of disastrous events, in which Hungary lost 80% of its Jewish population in just a few months with the actual contribution of the Hungarian regime itself.
This is clearly an event that requires decades, even centuries to work through guilt. Some erect statues and memorials in order not to ever let it happen again. Some deny it and others look deep in the bottom – as director and scriptwriter László Nemes Jeles did in Son of Saul. He had chosen the Sondercommando as the topic of his first film, the squadron whose tasks were to clean up the dead bodies after the mass murders committed by deadly gas in the death camps. This work gave the members of the commando a few more months to live but nothing else.
Lead character Saul Ausländer (played by poet Géza Röhrig) is a Sondercommando member during the times when Auschwitz worked in its highest intensity. One day he finds a body of a boy whom he seems to recognise as his son. The boy’s corpse is designated for an autopsy, since the child was still breathing after the gas chambers doors opened. Believing him to be his son Saul takes careful steps to bury the body in the proper Jewish way.
Clearly this story in itself looks similar to any other Holocaust movie and I am not saying it is not. Son of Saul shows the worst of the worst: death camps in full flank. Saul and the other Sondercommando workers clean the chambers on a very tight schedule: take the bodies to the crematory and do every other task that is required for the death factory to fully operate. Showing details becomes essential during the times when the number of the deniers of the Holocaust is on the rise all over Europe.
The movies of this genre usually make an effort to show that there were people, actual individuals who kept their humanity when all the circumstances pointed towards losing their moral hours – for example The Pianist or Life is Beautiful. In these films there is a hero, a role model who shows that it is possible to stick to the universal moral values even during the toughest times (see Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg).
László Nemes Jeles made a twist in Son of Saul: his antagonist is the opposite of the average Holocaust movie. Saul accepts the opportunity to become the member of the Sondercommando, a group of Jewish captives who collaborate with the Nazis. In order to be able to bear the moral burden of his decision Saul goes through a mental transformation turning into a robot. He shuts out the brutal reality and so does the film: cinematographer Mátyás Erdély focuses almost entirely on the face of the characters. The horror of the death camps is blurred and stays in the shadows. The screen takes on the protagonist’s point of view.
By using this device the focus is shifted solely onto the characters – or, metaphorically speaking, on the human side. This is the essence of the story: a man who lost all his feelings and became a robot, transforms back into a human being – and by this noble act, the antagonist turns into a protagonist. In other words, this is a moral and psychological journey exploring all that is put to stake this conversion.
Regarding strictly to the conversion the Holocaust itself is not important, it could be replaced dramaturgically by any other devastating event of the 20th century. The circumstances are not at all as important as the moral and spiritual message – that is the reason Son of Saul has a reflects to universal moral issues of the human instead of simply just showing how brutal and cruel the Holocaust was in operation. This message and topic makes Son of Saul a masterpiece of the Hungarian as well as the world cinema.