Rites for the Dead and Living?

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Bitopan Borborah

Holocaust film as a genre has its roots way back in 1946 when Orson Wells made The Stanger incorporating real footage of the dreadful concentration camp. Since for some directors the subject was closer to their heart and others somehow related to the time and the consequence; innumerable films were made on the Holocaust.

Although most of the Holocaust films were lost to oblivion shortly thereafter, many such films have indeed succeeded in creating a lasting impression and embossed their name prominently in the annals of cinematic history. However, the subject seems to have outlasted its time so much so that even in the second decade of 21st century and nearly six decades after the Holocaust it continues to haunt us and resurfaces over and over in films. The latest one Son of Saul by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, stands apart from the rest for its very different approach that nevertheless leaves a deep, enduring and haunting impression.

Saul Auslaender, the protagonist in the Son of Saul (Saul Fia) is Jewish prisoner turned Sonderkommando worker. Paradoxically the reason for their being alive is to aid the Nazis in exterminating their Jewish prisoners day in day out. In essence, he leads a blood and flesh existence, a dispensable part of machinery, which was set up for complete purging of the Jews.

While Saul is clearing the pile of dead bodies from the gas chamber and scrubbing the mucky floor, he comes across a live body of a young boy he identifies as his son. Unfolded with excruciating scenes as bare bodied Jewish prisoners; screaming and howling in terror, are pushed into certain death in the chamber, the story gains its pace with the recovery of the boy’s body the Nazis soon laid to rest.

Yet, Saul braves all odds to resist an autopsy and further plans to bury the boy performing Jewish religious rites while a Rabbi recites the Kaddish, but he faces the ire of fellow Sonderkommandos, plotting an uprising (the period being the last quarter of 1944). However, Saul’s singular, obsessive and resolute intent takes precedence over everything, so much so that taking the most perilous course by deceiving friends and foes alike and risking his own life too many times; he somehow manages to get a Rabbi and flees with the corpse finally finding peace with himself by performing the boy’s last rites.

Son of Saul is strikingly different, not only for the much focused subjective narrative, devoid of sympathy, but structurally it is far too removed from the classical as well as staccato. Yet the film builds up both tensions and emotions with equal élan and the whole narrative transmits the horror, pain and predicament of this life in a in a flux pretty heart-wrenchingly.

The films resumes with a blurred, out of focus shot coinciding with the arrival of a new group, from which emerges Saul and rushes for his assignment. From there on, the camera represents either Saul’s perspective or his action, while everything around him remains blurred throughout the film. This seems unprecedented, but appropriate enough. The camera is hand held throughout to ensure shaky images which amazingly brings into the fore the vulnerability of lives in the concentration camp. Complemented in rich measure by the sound (credit goes to Tamas Zanyi), this approach, however, carries forward the narrative and effectively reveals the murky and chilling ambience of the ghetto besides amid growing tensions amongst the Nazis as the Russians are fast approaching.

Above all it beautifully captures the subtle expression and incisive gaze of the protagonist, which reflects the concern, compassion, steadfastness and even fearlessness. By the end, when the boy appears from nowhere and vanishes into the woods, Saul’s face emits a sublime smile, which reveals the possibility of many interpretations.

It remains unclear, however, whether the boy was Sauls son or was it just an alibi to do away with apparent redemption tormenting his mind and grown out of being part of such horrid rituals? Or was it for the emancipation of his own soul; for he knew well he is just a living corpse and death just a thin line away? May be Saul embodies a last semblance of humanity in the hellish grotto and the boy embodies innocence, maybe a god… and deserves to be adored even in disguise of performing his last rites! May be it was a delusory journey of Saul in the quest for god hopelessly seems elusive even while such mayhem continues unabated and signals a glimmer of hope even in most adverse times.

It is a remarkable feat for director Laszlo Nemes, along with cameraman Matyas Erdely, to create such a fine display of virtuosity in their debut feature for which both went for a 4:3 aspect ratio over the now in vogue 16:9 for its fixated narrative and permeated the film with a jaded green, reflecting both gloom and gleam of its locale and protagonists.

In portraying Saul Auslaender, Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet and part time actor, displays incredible acumen, using his incisive glance and expressive eyes to dramatic effect, in heightening the impact of this 107-minute intense, breathtaking, and memorable drama.

Edited by Richard Mowe