A physical detachment from historical events and a subsequent lack of emotional reaction because of it. That’s how I justify why I don’t usually get affected when I watch a war film. I wasn’t there. I can’t imagine how it would have been and, despite the growing realism of each new reenactment film that appears, it fails to trigger in me a “fucking hell” reaction. Saving Private Ryan and the utterly brilliant Band of Brothers. They’re exciting, emotional films. The beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan was, at the time, unprecedented in realism and shock value. But once that was over, it was a more traditional approach in the way it played out and ultimately was seen through the eyes of a survivor. Recently Hacksaw Ridge arrived and with it the shocking realism and the brutality of conflict, but with a hero ending and a tale told through survivors. Fury was an excellent film that covered the claustrophobia of the Tank Division and again a sole survivor remains to tell the tale. There’s even satirical, black comedic takes like Inglorious Basterds. Literally hundreds of films to call upon if I want to dip in to the historical drama of the World Wars. With each one that I watch, I get a rough sense of what it might have been like, but I never connect absolutely to how it must have felt to experience it. Not physically obviously, but an insight into the mental and emotional intensity.
Perhaps it’s to do with the business side of film, in that there usually has to be a happy ending payoff of sorts, if only to make the watcher not leave feeling miserable – a triumph of the human spirit etc. I read about the up-coming releases for the Cannes film festival and the initial review of Son of Saul. I knew that it could be the film that really affected me. So much so I put off watching it for over a year. The memory of our visit to Oświęcim was still fresh in my mind and I had tried to read a book I bought from my visit, which I couldn’t even get through the first few pages of. It was just too harrowing having seen the place first hand.
Son of Saul opens out of focus, observing a few people beside some trees. A whistle blasts. A man walks quickly towards the camera and continues past where I’d usually expect the camera to stop, until his face consumes the entire frame. It’s disconcerting. From this point forward, his face remains here for almost the duration of the entire film, sharply in focus. Peripherally, albeit out of focus and fleeting, there’s a sense of what is going on around him. Saul travels alongside this crowd of people, ushering them towards something. A steam train puffs in the background and some music can be heard playing from a military truck. Saul walks down through what looks like a concrete bunker door and stands as many people filter past him. He shuts the door and it’s dark, but soon Saul’s silhouette appears and the camera follows him as he enters a room where everyone is getting undressed. They’re shown to another room for a “shower and some hot soup”. A metal door clangs shut and Saul begins removing the clothes from the pegs. He’s called over to a line beside this big metal door, where inside the people become concerned, then frantic. The hands slamming against the door become faster and faster; the cries louder and louder. Saul’s face remains impassive. A crescendo of distress rises then a cut to black, and silence. One long unbroken shot, from sitting beside a tree to standing beside the gas chamber door; from start to finish looking directly at Saul. It’s this technique, the first time I’ve seen it done, that amplifies everything to an unbearable intensity. It’s the most visceral, devastating cinematic experience I’ve ever had.
It’s Saul’s responsibility to strip incoming prisoners and retrieve valuables from their discarded clothing as they are gassed next door; he removes the bodies from the gas chambers and scrubs the floors afterwards, all in exchange for some small “privileges” like a tiny area to sleep and food. A middle-man of sorts, between the concentration camp officers and the prisoners. One day whilst removing the bodies from the gas chamber, he finds a small boy who is still alive. Not knowing what to do he watches from afar as the doctor smothers the small child. Saul decides that he must give this boy a proper Jewish burial and sets about making it happen.
Throughout the entire film we watch as Saul goes about his duties with an unflinching stoicism. He’s numbed to what he witnesses every day; his reactive emotional mind shutdown as a way of staying alive. Like his fellow Sonderkommando, he is not safe from the gas chamber and routinely is subject in a list of people from the group to send to their deaths. Ultimately he knows that he is a witness to this, and will end up dead regardless.
It’s an incredibly difficult film to watch and at a few points I had to pause it, to give myself the mental break from this horrific world I was witnessing from the outside. It’s intense. It’s deliberate. This isn’t a film you watch if you are not prepared for it; you wouldn’t make it past the first 10 minutes. Every new scene is filled with such alien yet identifiable things. It takes your brain a second to piece it together; that is a mound of bodies; that is a box of gold teeth. Here is another train arriving. You suddenly get a very real sense of the scale and scope of what happened at these camps. It removes the air from my lungs. I start to sweat.
Towards the end of the film Saul makes a break for it, along with a few other prisoners and after a swim down a river, they all end up in a derelict shed in the woods where they hide as the chasing captors hunt for them. Suddenly a small boy runs past the open doorway of the shed; he stops and looks at Saul. The camera cuts to Saul’s face filling the frame; the same flat expression on his face as has been the rest of the film. But then Saul slowly smiles. It is one of the most powerful and emotional things I’ve ever witnessed on film; a simple change of expression delivering the most devastating blow. I didn’t know how to feel; I knew it wasn’t over but this seemed like a release of sorts; will he be ok? Shortly after the camera cuts away following as the boy runs in to the woods, gets grabbed by an SS soldier to make sure he doesn’t make a noise, and is then released. The camera follows the boy once more as gunshots ring out in the background. The film ends.
I must have sat for 30 minutes afterwards in silence. It was late by this point, maybe 1am, and I was alone. I sat there frozen; connecting what I had just seen with the memories of our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, and each memory I recalled brought with it a new sense of realism and emotion. I think if I had watched it when it first appeared in 2015 (a year after we went to Poland) it would have been unbearable to watch.
A lot is said about historical war films and how important they are. Much is made of the star pulling power of Tom Hanks or Chris Nolan. Everyone delights in the computer effects and “realism” of the scenes and enjoy the Oscar touting performances of our leading men and women. Before Son of Saul I would have probably remained as disconnected and impassive as ever. Now though, with any new film I watch, I just can’t help but feel a little bit like it’s glorifying, glossifying the horrors of war. Son of Saul is so simple in its delivery, so unflinching with its portrayal and stays so true to the very end, never once taking the easy option or giving the viewer any kind of resolve at all. I watched just under 2 hours of absolute, abject horror and was left afterwards with no hope; no survivor or witness. Not one. Not even a glimmer of light, save for Saul’s mission to give this wee boy, who might or might not be his son, a Jewish burial.
It is the most important film I have ever seen, and probably will ever see.
Directed by László Nemes with Géza Röhrig as Saul – an unforgettable performance. There are two wonderful interviews with these guys over at DP | 30, where they discuss how Géza’s upbringing influenced and affected his phenomenal performance, as well as the more technical side of making such a challenging film with the Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély.
Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media