An anti-hero from the horror of the Holocaust

By Helen Barlow

Geza Rohrig as Saul. Photo / Supplied
Geza Rohrig as Saul. Photo / Supplied

Movies about and connected to the Holocaust remain a fixture of cinema, especially in Europe. But while most have dealt with heroes and survivors, Son of Saul isn't that kind of Holocaust drama.

The film from Hungarian first-time filmmaker Laszlo Nemes took out the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix and Critics prizes last year and looks set to win the foreign language film Oscar after taking home the Golden Globe.

Son of Saul places us in Auschwitz and follows a day and a half in the life of Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). He's a Sonderkommando, who, like other select Jewish prisoners, is allowed to live for a few months if he works in the gas chambers.

"Most stories of the Holocaust are about survival," says Nemes, who is Jewish, "but the very heart and the feeling of it has never really been approached. I have always been very interested in what it was really like to be there, because everything is so coloured and changed in hindsight."

Director Laszlo Nemes. Photo / AP
Director Laszlo Nemes. Photo / AP

Little is known of collaborators like Saul, though they left their own records of the atrocities they helped commit.

"When I came across the writings of the Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz scrolls I was transported into the middle of it," Nemes recalls.

"These men were forced to burn their own people and they made writings before dying. They knew they would be liquidated and put those notes into the ground. Those notes were found after the war. They described their daily tasks like taking out personal belongings and sorting them out, as well as how they put together a certain form of resistance."

In the film, Saul seeks a kind of redemption by adopting the corpse of a boy as his own son and attempting to give a decent burial.

"Saul is more involved in making sure his soul survives than his body, and the way you nurture your soul is to give to somebody else," Nemes says.

"So he wants to bury this boy, he wants to do something for someone else. It's a selfless orientation."

It took five years for the Budapest-born Paris rehashed Nemes to bring Son of Saul to the screen. He keeps dialogue to a minimum against a background of eerie industrial camp sounds.

"When the image is not there to give you a lot of information the sounds can say much more. It's a huge machine; it's a like beast. It's moving and never sleeps. It has a dynamic quality to it. It's living, the death is living there."

The film barely strays from Rohrig's Saul. The New York-based Hungarian actor has some sympathy for his character's predicament.

"What choice did they have? Once they figured out what their work would be, some did commit suicide, but others felt strong enough to go on and try to survive. The only way to do it was to desensitise your whole being - to not see what you see and to not hear what you hear and to go through the day minute by minute."


What: Son of Saul, Best Foreign Language Oscar front runner
Where and when: At selected cinemas from Thursday.

- NZ Herald

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