November 19, 2019

Why we need rabbis: A lesson from ‘Son of Saul’

“Son of Saul,” Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes’ debut feature, begins in metaphor.

In its first minutes, we are yanked from a blurry but serene image of a green forest, where it is so quiet it is possible to hear birds sing, and thrust into a place no other Holocaust film I can think of has dared to tread — inside the grinding, workaday chaos of the gas chamber. 

We descend, literally, in an instant, from light to darkness, from peace to pandemonium. And, suddenly, we are given a window into the everyday texture of a concentration camp — and its deadening toll on the soul — in a way never before depicted on screen.

Our companion on this terrible journey is Saul, a Jewish inmate and member of the Sonderkommando who is tasked with the dirty work of body disposal.

Each day, Saul’s will is reduced to that of a robot, as he numbingly ushers other Jews into the “showers” and then scans their discarded clothing for valuables. When the screaming and pounding in the next room subsides, it is Saul’s duty to clean up the mess. As Nemes’ camera hovers over Saul’s shoulder, as if affixed to his body, we see what Saul sees: naked corpses collapsed on the floor then dragged through a slush of human refuse before being carted off to the crematoria. 

As if abject atrocity was not enough, Saul labors under the condition that, every few months, members of the Sonderkommando also are executed, lest they learn to harness their dark power as “bearers of secrets.”

But Saul breaks command when something unexpected and miraculous happens, even as it roils our gut: He hears the sound of desperate wheezing and discovers a young boy who has miraculously survived the Zyklon gas. Moments later, Saul watches, transfixed, as a Nazi manually suffocates the boy, and from that moment Saul fixates on burying him. 

Saul says it’s his son, but is it? It doesn’t matter. At this point, Saul will stop at nothing to find a rabbi who can help facilitate the ritual.

For most of the film, we follow Saul as he sets about his mission, activating what little agency he has left in order to complete this sacred task — which, for him, represents the last shred of humanity. In what seems like an endless blur of time, where day bleeds into night with no ceremony or structure, and where the sounds of sirens, screams and gunshots explode into the air at any hour, Saul moves fluidly through disorder and confusion in pursuit of the one person who could possibly bring him relief.

The question is, why? And it’s a good Jewish question: Why does Saul need a rabbi? And for that matter, why do any of us?

When Saul first asks about Jewish burial, he is promptly told to say Kaddish. He doesn’t need a rabbi for this, but he insists upon it anyway. 

In his book “The Drowned and the Saved,” author and survivor Primo Levi famously wrote that the Nazis’ use of the Sonderkommando was their “most demonic crime,” because it shifted the blame and “the burden of guilt” onto other, mostly Jewish, prisoners, “so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence.”

In the Nazi world, where notions of a moral universe disintegrate like bodies to ash, what Saul seeks is not God, or goodness, or even redemption: He seeks order. He seeks a moment of meaning in a shattered world.

For Saul, the burial ritual itself provides a sense of order; the rabbi’s presence, and prayer, gives it meaning. Together, a senseless world is given some kind of spiritual symmetry. The act is a defiant one, a rejection of the nihilistic burning of bodies in which he is forced to participate day in and day out. And, without spoiling the plot, it can be said that he risks perhaps more than he should in order to satisfy the last spiritual urge in his spiritless life.

Although the film is provocative in its empathetic portrayal of a Sonderkommando, it has already established itself within the Holocaust film canon as one of the most significant ever made — up there with “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah” and “Night and Fog.” At last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, it was awarded the Grand Prix, a top award, and it will almost certainly earn an Oscar nomination in the foreign-language film category when they are announced later this month. I’d venture to guess it will probably win. 

“Son of Saul” is not just a brilliant film — technically, imaginatively and beautifully acted by the author, poet and teacher Géza Röhrig in his acting debut — it is also an important one. And not because it is yet one more indispensable drop in a sea of Holocaust stories still untold, but because it teaches us something about the limits of despair.

When all appears lost, miracles do occur — a young boy survives the gas chamber; a ruined man buries his symbolic son. Sometimes, Saul teaches us, the only thing necessary to keep the world turning is a little determination, a meaningful ritual and a rabbi.