October 18, 2018

‘Son of Saul’: A Holocaust film through a different lens

Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’ harrowing debut feature film, “Son of Saul,” spotlights a day-and-a-half in the life in 1944 of a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau –  Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian Jewish prisoner, one of those forced to help usher Jews into the gas chambers, then to remove the corpses and burn them in the crematoria ovens, all with the knowledge that the Nazis would purge the likes of him and his colleagues every few months.

As the film opens, Saul is portrayed as an emotional zombie, inured to the horrors of his gruesome environment until he discovers a boy who miraculously survived the gas chamber, only to be murdered by a Nazi doctor minutes later.  Convinced that the child was his son, Saul embarks upon a feverish mission to find a rabbi to recite Kaddish and to properly bury the boy, even as his fellow Sonderkommando members are planning a rebellion against their captors.

Throughout the film, the camera often remains in close up on Saul’s face, or with the point of view limited to what he sees at his eye level, and atrocities appear only as blurred images on the periphery of the frame.  Saul’s mission to bury the boy appears to be as much as a revolt, albeit an internal one, as his comrades’ rebellion against the Nazis.

The drama won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where Claude Lanzmann, director of the iconic Holocaust documentary, “Shoah,” congratulated Nemes on his movie.  “Son of Saul” went on to become Hungary’s official submission for the 2016 Academy Awards and to earn mostly stellar reviews for its unconventional, immersive approach to the Holocaust film genre.

During an interview at a West Hollywood Hotel, Nemes, a 38-year-old Hungarian Jew, appeared pale and blond, his voice quiet but feverishly intense as he described how from earliest childhood he’d heard stories of how his great-grandparents perished in Auschwitz in 1944. 

“The first reason I made this film is because I’m angry,” the director and co-writer of the film said.  “I could never come to terms with what happened, and the more I heard about it, the less I understood.” 

Nemes was also prompted by a preoccupation with what his relatives must have seen and felt during their final hours on earth.  “I wanted to communicate the here-and-now sense of being in the middle of the killing process –- both the organization and the chaos,” he said.  “ And focusing on one member of the Sonderkommando was a direct road into the heart of the extermination.”

“Son of Saul” was intended to be what Nemes perceives as the antithesis to many dramas that have touched on the Shoah (think “Schindler’s List,” a movie Nemes admires, but believes ends on too hopeful a note).  “Usually those films tread a path that is reassuring and conclude with survival – but survival is a lie,” he said.  “It was the exception.  But I felt that somebody had to talk about the rule, which was extermination.”

Unlike Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 Holocaust film “The Grey Zone,” “Son of Saul” does not depict members of the Sondkommando as semi-collaborators with the Nazis who enjoyed unprecedented privileges in the camp.  In Nemes’ drama, their living conditions are revealed to have been somewhat better than those of other inmates, yet they are constantly terrified and pressured by screaming guards.

Even so, at Cannes, “Son of Saul” renewed the historical debate about whether the Sonderkommando were actually perpetrators, with one journalist suggesting that they were  “half-victims, half-hangmen.”

Nemes fiercely disagrees.  “That’s part of a strange tendency to shift responsibility from the perpetrators to the victims,” he said. 

Rohrig, 48, concurs: “The most demonic crime of the Nazis was to force the Sonderkommando to assist in the killing process,” he said during a telephone interview from Budapest, where he was hosting screenings of “Son of Saul” for high-school students.  “In doing so, they were taking away even their solace of being innocent.  They were making Cain out of Abel.          

“There were some Sonderkommando members who attempted to commit suicide, and I would label them as saints,” Rohrig added.  “But I would never dare to pass judgment on the people who didn’t – who to survive and to become the father of their children, did what they had to do just to make sure that they remained alive.  They were 100 percent victims.”

To keep the script as factual as possible, Nemes and his co-screenwiter, Clara Royer, studied myriad books, including survivors’ testimonies as well as diaries that Sonderkommando members had buried in the ground at Birkenau that were later unearthed. 

“But we knew that showing too many of the atrocities would [depict] too much horror,” Nemes said, adding that the film eschews showing people dying within the gas chamber because Saul never witnesses that gruesome process.  “We didn’t want to work within the scheme of a horror movie because that would have created repulsion.

“Most Holocaust films want to show too much, while the Holocaust is something that you can never encompass completely.  Instead, we make the viewer a companion to Saul, and we put everything else in the background and in fragments.”

Yet those fragments, as well as a vivid sound design, manage to convey Saul’s loathsome tasks in some detail. The process of disposing of the dead, “took about four hours,” Rohrig said.  “The first thing was to empty the gas chamber, to separate the limbs and search for jewelry inside the bodies, to pull the golden teeth and cut the women’s hair.  And after they dragged the bodies out of the chamber, they had to wash the floor, and to even paint the room to white again because of the scratch marks and the blood and all the bodily fluids that were left there.  They had to start the ventilation machine to get the stench out.  All this was so the next transport would honestly be able to believe that this was truly a shower room.

“And then they had to burn the people in the ovens on the floor above, to pulverize their ashes in a bone mill, to put the ashes into sacks and with a shovel they had to throw them in a nearby river.  The goal was to leave no trace that these living beings had ever existed on the face of the earth.”

After extensive auditions, Nemes cast Rohrig as Saul, even though Rohrig — an author and a teacher at Jewish schools in New York — had little acting experience.  “But he had the single-mindedness and the obsession of our main character; it was part of his personality,” Nemes explained.  “We needed someone who could instinctively be Saul, not simply performing a role.”

Like Nemes, Rohrig grew up in Budapest; after Rohrig’s father died when he was 4, he was, for complex reasons, sent to live in an orphanage until age 12, when Jewish friends of the family adopted him.  He said he is now writing a book involving his origins, but declined to discuss the topic further at this time.

While playing chess one day with his adopted grandfather, Rohrig learned of how the patriarch had lost all his nuclear family in Auschwitz, and had survived only by luck in the Budapest ghetto.  “I think the chess game allowed him to tell me the stories without looking in my eyes,” Rohrig said.

When Rohrig went off to university in Poland, “I promised my grandfather that I would visit Auschwitz,” he said.  Rohrig ended up moving into the town adjacent to the camp and visited it every day, all day, for a month.  “I took extremely frenzied notes,” he recalled. “My visit turned everything inside out for me.  I became so feverish to meet survivors who had actually been there, to know how that experience transformed their faith, their values.  My question was, ‘How does one hold onto a belief in God after Auschwitz?’”

Rohrig later moved to Israel for two years, where he spoke to survivors and concluded that God had not been mute in the camp.  “He was speaking through people who were still able to give up their portion of bread or to bury the dead like Saul; people who were doing good, even in that horrible place.”

Seeking answers to more theological questions, Rohrig studied at a Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, N.J. from 1992 to 1994, and, a decade later, earned a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.  He is now a modern Orthodox Jew and lives in Riverdale, N.Y.; he wrote his first collection of poems based on the diaries he had scribbled at Auschwitz.

While immersed in extensive reading on the Sonderkommando as he prepared to shoot “Son of Saul,” Rohrig suffered from nightmares and insomnia, but managed to remain keenly focused on his performance during the 30-day shoot, which took place on an old military base in Budapest last year.

“Son of Saul” is not just a period piece; its story continues to resonate today, Rohrig said.  “Since the Holocaust, every third Cambodian was murdered and we’ve had Bosnia and Rwanda and Darfur.  We have ISIS beheading Christians just because they are Christian.” 

When some Hungarian journalists wondered why Nemes had to make yet another film about the Holocaust, the writer-director was blunt.  “It’s specifically for the reason that they’re even asking that question,” he said.  “They have not come to terms with their past.”

“Son of Saul” will screen at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on Nov. 9 and with the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 11. The film opens in theaters in Los Angeles on Dec. 18.   For more information about the AFI screening, visit http://www.afi.com/afifest.  For the Jewish Film Festival screening, reservations are requiring by calling (800) 838-3006 or visiting www.lajfilmfest.org.