Son of Saul

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The Holocaust (in Hebrew as the Shoah) befell on humanity more than seventy years ago.

Since, the corpus of films and movies on the Holocaust has made it a cinematic genre. When Hungarian director Laszlo Newes’ first feature, “Son of Saul,” first appeared, my visceral response was paucity. Then a friend alerted me another look. I am glad that I did.

The story follows Saul Auslander who is an Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner and part of the Sonderkonnando, a forced labor group abetting the Nazis in the extermination of fellow prisoners. While working in the crematoriums, Saul recovers the body of a boy among the deaths. Embracing the dead boy as his ‘son,’ he determines to save the body from the flames and give it a proper Jewish burial. In the midst of his hideous chores, he searches for a willing rabbi to recite the mourner’s Kaddish (ritual prayer). While the other Sonderkonnandos plot a camp rebellion, Saul risks everything, including exposure of the scheme, to fulfill his altruism.   

Much of the screen stays narrow shots of Saul’s face and back. When the few scenes span to wider angles, the images are blurred. We hear the gruesome sounds of suffering and dying but do not see what Saul endures. As if Mr. Newes mercifully spares us of the unbearable cruelties of human evil. Saul, portrayed by a non-professional actor Geza Rohrig, stares into the darkness and through others with sad, hollowed eyes. His facial expressions, drained by emotive detachment, are void of existential meaning and smothered by invidious hopelessness. We sense his horrific darkness without the multi-sensory.

Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher, reporting Adolf Eichmann’s trial for war crimes sagaciously called the Nazi atrocities a “banality of evil.” She surmises that individuals who perpetrate systemic evils are not resolved fanatics but are ordinary people going about their evil deeds mindlessly, as if of a seared conscious. Saul’s participation in Auschwitz-Birkenau seemingly is a kind of banality. With disturbing opacity, he herds victims into the gas chambers and rifles through their belongings for valuables. Then he drags the bodies into flaming furnaces and shovels coals to fuel the fire. Afterwards, he carries the ashes in a wheel-barrel and disposes them in the river. He returns to scrub the crematorium floor in preparation for the next victims.

Why would someone of common conscious endure such ghastly animus to stay alive a little longer? Is our human urge to survive a justifiable reason for inhumanities? Without being there, we will never know answers to those questions. And who are we to judge. Given the opportune circumstances and inclinations, we are capable of anything, good or evil. “Son of Saul” meditates this notion of being human, even when engulfed in inhumanities. Saul’s surreptitious endeavor to complete a singular act of righteousness for a dead boy at once offers him existential significance. At great risks to himself and fellow prisoners, Saul threatens, disobeys, begs and hastens to find a personal signification.

Other prisoners rebuke Saul – what difference does it make, the boy is dead! Saul’s simple act of reciting a prayer for the dead may also seem banal. And yet, it gives Saul existential meaning. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s holocaust survival led him to embrace the importance of finding meaning in all human existence, including brutalities, to continue being human. Saul Auslander finds his humanity in doing something righteous for a dead boy.