Thursday, March 3, 2016

Son of Saul

                                    Welcome to Hell, Now Get to Work

                                                        Review by Ken Burke
            The producers and main cast of Spotlight celebrate their well-deserved Best Picture Oscar win
 Now that the Oscars for 2015-released-films have been given (Yea, Spotlight [Tom McCarthy]!), 
debated, commented upon, evaluated (I correctly predicted 75% of the winners, would’ve changed the actual results some, but overall am happy with the trophy-holders in the major categories), and been—somewhat marginally—noticed (see the next paragraph below), I’ve got just one more of the major 2015 contenders left to cover, my topic this week, Son of Saul, winner of the Best Foreign Language Feature from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, along with that same honor from the Independent Spirit Awards and the Golden Globes as well as other awards for this category including from my local San Francisco Film Critics Circle, plus the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival (here’s a complete list of its accolades), a film so impactful that in retrospect it would have to bump Sicario (Denis Villeneuve) off my 2015 Top 10 as the final entry of that group.  (Not only does Son of Saul deserve a review focus all on its own for this posting but also there’s nothing much else available that I really want to see anyway; I was intrigued by Gods of Egypt for about a minute, then consistently poor reviews [Rotten Tomatoes, 11% positive; Metacritic, 25%, a rare case of these reviewers giving the higher score]—despite an anti-Hollywood-semi-defense from my colleague and frequent-political-opponent, the “Right Critic,” Fiore Mastricci, although he still gave it only a C grade—and this analysis of why it flopped dampened my semi-enthusiasm for Gods ..., as must have been the case for many others as it grossed only $14 million domestically in its opening weekend compared to a $140 million budget.)

 (Before leaving the Oscars for 2015 films behind, though, I’ll note that—despite some smart, biting [yet still hilarious] commentary and the great phony clips from Chris Rock—overall ratings were low compared to recent years, maybe because of the #OscarSoWhite boycott or maybe because many of the nominees aren’t that familiar to the average-popcorn-movie-ticket-buyer—see here for what made the money in our domestic market last year to note the general divergence from that list vs. most of the Oscar nominees [although Mad Max: Fury Road {George Miller}—the overall-trophy-hog with 6 Oscars—would seem to be what would pump up viewership for the ceremony but even …Max was #21 of the 2015 top-grossers, a bigger success with critics than with audiences], an ongoing complaint about why this broadcast struggles for viewership every year and why the Academy has broadened the Best Picture options to be up to 10, in hopes of getting a few more of the big-ticket-movies onto that list [such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens {J.J. Abrams}] along with more diverse stories, filmmakers, and actors [such as Creed {Ryan Coogler}], although that strategy didn’t pay off for either of my examples this year, contributing to both the boycott and the likely-decreased-audience-interest even among those not boycotting.  I can’t say I’m bothered too much by this mismatch, though, because I still hope that honors for cinematic accomplishments—except for such things as the People's Choice Awards—go to deserving acts of artistry rather than something that’s just a box-office-champ [not that there’s anything wrong with that, as our internally-divided-culture desperately needs a lot of diversionary entertainment, but gross-income and pop-culture-coverage is its own reward for those movies] so that none of my Top 10 films of 2015 [now including Son of Saul] are on the Top 10 income list, although I also enjoyed [or thoroughly-enjoyed] most of that group as well [you can check my ratings if you want more details on thatexcept for Minions {Pierre Coffin}, which I didn’t see].)
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                     Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
In 1944 at the Auschwitz death camp one of the Jewish prisoners is part of the Nazi-dictated group forced to help their captors with the genocidal practices; one day he takes it upon himself to find a rabbi so that a dead boy can be given a proper burial but in the process encounters brutality from his captors as well as lies and hostility from his fellow-condemned men.
What Happens: The setting is October, 1944 at the horrific 
Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps where we’re quickly thrown into the action as the camera closely follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew prisoner forced to assist the Nazis as a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of workers (not collaborators) kept constantly busy (day and night shifts) aiding the murderers in charge of this grim institution to carry out their genocidal strategy of ridding the emerging Fascist empire of all of the “undesirables” in Europe.  Saul and his fellow workers, many of whom are Hungarian in the squad he’s with, are pushed to stay in motion, either helping herd new arrivals into the gas chambers (with the lies that they’re first going to shower before eating hot soup), dragging the dead bodies (called “pieces” or “it” by the soldiers to further dehumanize them) out to the crematorium after the executions, mopping the floors of blood so as not to tip off the next batch of victims, rooting through the clothes of the dead (they all enter the execution room naked) for jewelry or other valuables (allowing the Sonderkommandos to steal a little booty for themselves as needed bribes), or shoveling the ashes of the burned dead into the nearby river so as to obliterate any evidence of the tragic activities connected to this grotesque “final solution.”  One day Saul observes a pre-teen-boy who somehow survived the gas, laying on a table a medical room where he’s strangled by the Nazi doctor in charge.  For reasons not yet revealed to us, Saul decides this one particular victim deserves a proper Jewish burial so he quietly requests the assisting doctor, Miklós (Sándor Zsótér), also a prisoner, to allow him to sneak the body away rather than allow it to be autopsied.  The doctor very reluctantly agrees, so the boy’s cadaver is hidden while Saul takes it upon himself to find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish prayer.  However, the 1st one he encounters (Jerzy Walczak) wants no part of this exceedingly-dangerous-scheme so Saul’s quest for most of the rest of this film is to find a cooperative clergyman to help.

 One option is a Greek known as the Renegade but also reputed to be a rabbi (Márton Ágh); Saul manages to get himself into the ashes-shoveling-detail with this man, but he also refuses, even denying that he has the status Saul’s confronting him about.  In anger, Saul throws the man’s shovel into the river; the Greek goes after it, although he seems actually to be using this opportunity to commit suicide by drowning (presumably, both to end the endless-suffering that these poor Sonderkommandos must endure for a few months before they’re scheduled for death as well and to put to rest any further attempts to be identified as a rabbi in such heartless, hopeless situations).  Saul jumps in to save him, later tells the inquisitor that the Greek was simply trying to retrieve a lost shovel while he was aiding an accidently-drowning-man; Saul is sent back to his original unit, while the Renegade is shot on the spot, a brutal act but likely the result he secretly desired at this point.  Right after that incident (this whole story occurs within about 36 hours), Saul’s pressed into service by his fellow Hungarian prisoners to go with a group making a delivery of stolen goods to a nearby warehouse (under the excuse that the confiscated possessions—including suitcases and other belongings that these captives hurriedly brought with them when they were rounded up at their homes, under the assumption [more lies] that they were simply being relocated—needed to be moved from the camp as the new-arrival-goods were piling up too fast, leaving no more room) where a young woman will slip him a small bundle of gunpowder to be used in a planned rebellion/escape.  Saul gets the bundle but loses it on the way back to Auschwitz during the chaos of coming upon another group of prisoners being herded by Nazis through the woods; this group didn’t even get the “dignity” of the gas-chamber-farce, though, as they were simply shot, then pushed into a large ditch.  Saul manages to frantically find a rabbi in the crowd but he’s killed almost immediately while another, Braun (Todd Charmont), claims such status so Saul gives the man his own shirt (marked with a big red X on the back) in order to get him safely back to the camp.

 During this time, we learn from Saul’s terse conversation with one of his colleagues that he’s obsessively-focused on a proper burial for this boy because he’s Saul’s son (but not by his wife); we also see him successfully moving the body in a sack from the morgue area to his prisoner quarters so that when the rebellion does happen (even without the gunpowder but apparently with guns provided by jewelry-bribed-guards [would they actually be so foolish, just from greed?]) with about a dozen of the Sonderkommandos racing off into the woods, Saul is with them, carrying the boy’s body accompanied by the rather-shell-shocked-rabbi.  Saul and his companion try to frantically dig a grave with Saul entreating the other man to begin the Kaddish, which he hesitantly starts but can’t do much with, as it’s clear his rabbinical-claim was simply based on the Saul-provided-opportunity-of-the-moment to prevent immediate death.  Horrified, Saul wraps the body again, then jumps into the river with it but loses control of it in the current, almost drowning in the process until he’s pulled to safety by another escapee.  Further into the woods, they all take shelter in a wooden shed with plans to keep going until they meet up with either Polish Resistance fighters or invading Soviet troops.  Strangely, though, Saul sees a young boy looking through the shed’s door at them; he smiles as if seeing the spirit of his son, although the boy keeps a neutral expression, then runs away.  Suddenly, he’s stopped and kept quiet by one member of a German squad while the other soldiers run off-screen.  We hear shots, then the film goes to black to end, leaving us with the impression that the attempted-escape completely failed.

So What? There’s no attempt to give us any background context as to who Saul is or even where we are.  Despite having made a sobering visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial a few years ago, there’s nothing in the story itself (just in the press kit, available for a change to anyone without needing specific credentials or a password just by visiting the film’s official website, the 1st listing below in the Related Links for this film) to even identify which concentration camp this is, when these horrible events occur, or—according to many commentators on this disturbing masterpiece—whether this boy is really Saul’s son out of wedlock or just represents all of the unjustified horrors that this man has witnessed so that he becomes a symbolic offspring to Saul, deserving of human (and specific Jewish) dignity so grotesquely denied to the millions of victims of Nazi hatred (maybe this was also atonement by Saul for helping in the extermination of so many others).  The film's 2 grim opening scenes before the title credits show us closeups of Saul, from the rear or front, constantly in motion with the background blurred out (in fact, the beginning shot is completely out of focus until Saul walks into it, giving you reason to wonder if the projector lens somehow strayed after opening intertitles explain who the Sonderkommandos were) so we’re completely connected to him with his impassive face as he goes about his miserable task of helping to steer new arrivals to their deaths; we watch these long-take, uncut scenes in the old Academy (near-square) aspect ratio of 1.37:1, implying (for those who realize it) that we’re looking at a spontaneous documentary from that time (although in color rather than black & white) where the camera operator is simply trying to keep up with the ongoing action rather than having any chance to plan, compose, or anticipate the next action (unlike the marvelously-framed-images of Leni Riefenstahl’s tribute to the Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia [1938], referenced often in Race [Stephen Hopkins; review in our February 23, 2016 posting], a filmic antidote to the #OscarSoWhite concerns in its focus on Jesse Owens’ 1936 triumphs over Hitler's evil plans but we’ll have to see if anyone remembers it by nomination-time next January).  We stay locked in focus (with some sharper surrounding clarity at times) throughout Son of Saul, keeping us constantly connected to this passionate but unstable main character.

 Another aspect of the larger story here that we get no information on is why any of these doomed prisoners—who had only a few months of life to gain at best—would even be willing to accept the “offer” of joining the Sonderkommando units rather than just dying immediately upon refusal instead of contributing to this genocide-factory (we do learn from the film that they were quartered away from other prisoners so as to not divulge the horrible fate that awaited, although it’s amazing to me that any of these inmates allowed to live beyond initial arrival in those railroad cattle cars wouldn’t know very soon what the real operations of these camps were), but all I can do with this topic is report on history, not even attempt to understand it, given the ghastly nature of everything involved with the Holocaust.  Maybe the Sonderkommandos had hopes of living long enough to escape or find liberation from invading Allied forces, maybe they held out hopes of somehow seeing loved ones again—even if just briefly—before their inevitable demise, maybe the fear of immediate death (something I’ve never had to face) is so strong that a person 
will cling to life as long as possible no matter what has to be done to achieve that.  I know not what motivated the acts of the Sonderkommandos (especially the prisoner-Oberkapos [unit leaders] forcefully keeping their “troops” in line, except to avoid punishment themselves) nor do I judge anyone else’s decisions about their choices (except for the Nazis who certainly knew damn well what they were doing; I have no remorse for any of them, even the eldest, frail ones still being occasionally identified and held accountable for their crimes, especially with pathetic attempts to claim they were only administrators who had no idea what was going on in their camps; “bullshit,” 
I reply), but I do know that Son of Saul is a unique, tremendously-powerful-film, one that adds a layer of emotional depth not even found in other superb explorations of this horrible period of human history (such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List [1993]), which doesn’t make it the definitive statement on the horrors of the Holocaust (if anything does; the massive documentary Shoah [Claude Lanzmann, 1985] is a strong contender) but rather one that immerses us into the mind of a captive (without ever knowing explicitly what he’s thinking) who lives in constant fear that he could die at any second simply for not mopping up someone else’s blood fast enough.

 The ending may leave us with a sense of futility for the protagonist and his fellow escapees (although we know that liberation of these death camps finally occurred, along with the crushing end of the regime that initiated those horrors, even though this extra-narrative-present-knowledge is small consolation for the immediate miseries that we’re witnessing)—an uncompromising aspect of the film’s relentless-impact; however, we also find noble determination in the face of sure death, whether with the prisoner-photographer Biedermann (Urs Rechn) who attempts to use a hidden camera to shoot images of the tragedies occurring around him with hopes of smuggling out his evidence to verify to a largely-unsuspecting-world what was happening with the horrific Nazi exterminations, the careful plotting of the Hungarians to take violent action against their even-more-violent-captors, the singular determination of Saul (going through his own "conversion" to a course of significant action, although not like the New Testament’s famous Saul had done centuries before by becoming the dominant Christian apostle Paul) to achieve a meaningful act for just one of his fellow sufferers, whether from a felt-familial-obligation or just a need to find a humane response to the most inhuman of national policies.  Sadly for our hopes, there’s nothing overtly “liberating” in the plot points of this film—the photographer’s documentary-attempt yields little because a huge cloud of smoke obscures what he tries to show of burning bodies, the only true rabbi who might have helped Saul with his burial quest is randomly killed just as Saul meets him, Saul’s attempt at the boy’s burial comes to nothing despite the dangerous actions taken to get the corpse away from the camp, the prison escape provides the bare minimum of freedom’s fresh air before another vicious mass-execution of the captives—just as the visualization of this story is so constantly confining and ambiguous, but ultimately we see what Nemes says he wants to convey as Saul tries to block out all that surrounds him in an attempt to stay sane: ‘The film concentrates on one point of view and one person’s line of action, which allows the character to come across other points of view and other actions.  The camp, however, is perceived through the prism of Saul’s journey.”

Bottom Line Final Comments: Son of Saul is an intimate, haunting experience that helps us somewhat better understand the nature of the WW II-era-criminal-enterprise that killed so many innocent millions, achieving its impact by a constant focus on the desperation of 1 man to achieve something restorative of human dignity in a chaotic environment where decency, respect, and acceptance of differences (whether based on religion, nationalities, or whatever else might separate one segment of humanity from another) were all banished from the harsh realities of this gruesomely-constructed-existence. Having visited the instructive-memorial-remains of these atrocious death camps myself (I’ll credit my curiously-brave-wife, Nina, with the insistence that we go, as the mere concept of being in such a place was terrifying to me; actually being there—seeing the display rooms of suitcases, hair, prosthetic limbs, etc. taken from those murdered millions—as well as walking into the now-silent-gas-chamber itself—was one of the saddest, most sublime experiences of my life, but helpful in understanding the reaches of human cruelty so as to never doubt what we as a species are capable of, in order to take needed actions to prevent a recurrence of such monstrous activities), I could possibly feel more actively moved by what I saw on screen but the film is powerful enough on its own to make its case for exposing the madness of this racial-extermination-policy with its attendant dehumanization on all concerned even if you’re not of Jewish heritage or have never seen firsthand what the Nazis tried to enforce on others, even their fellow Germans.

 Rather than try to find further words to address Son of Saul, though, I’ll defer to eloquent Katalin Balog (she's Associate Professor of Philosophy at New Jersey’s Rutgers University-Newark) from a very recent opinion-piece in the New York Times where she discusses how this film exemplifies the necessary subjective encounters of life, helping its audiences delve deeper into themselves in the process: To identify life with its abstractions is, in Kierkegaard’s view, a dangerous but all too common error. … This line of thought holds that human significance comes from subjective experience and that human beings cannot thrive without an orientation towards, and engagement with, the subjective experience of their lives, and that, as a matter of fact, a predominantly objective, conceptual orientation to oneself is detrimental to well being. As Kierkegaard put it, ‘Science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way.’  [But] … by becoming less subjective, we become more cut off from sources of meaning and value. … ‘Son of Saul’ approaches its stupefying subject in a way that echoes Kierkegaard’s imperative. The audience is not given any space to distance from Saul’s reality or turn it into an abstraction of suffering, innocence, or goodness; the film doesn’t depict the story of the Holocaust in generic ways that would encourage getting lost in a historical account. Rather, it allows viewers to feel its textures, and perceive the sights and sounds that make up individual experience. In this way, the film depicts what many critics have argued could not be depicted.”  To finish all of this with my usual Musical Metaphor that attempts to speak in another manner to the cinematic subject at hand, I’ll offer you a short but thoughtful tune from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (on their 1971 album, 4 Way Street), “Find the Cost of Freedom” at; while this song (and its accompanying video images) is more specifically addressed to the casualties of the Vietnam War, I do think it has metaphorical connections to the Holocaust as well.

A small future-focused-sculpture sits at the end of the line
on the Birkenau tracks where the prisoners were brought in
 However, in an attempt to end things here on a more upbeat note I’ll encourage you to follow (again, in a metaphorical way because what I’m about to recommend is specifically about a fractured romance but I think it can be extended to other levels) the depicted Hungarian Sonderkommando attitude of “we have no choice but to carry on” with another CSN&Y song, (what else?) “Carry On” (originally 
on their 1970 Déjà vu album but also on 4 Way Street in a much longer [13:06] version), either at https://www. watch?v=yTTTU0V3 OEc for the original recording (with its time-specific crackles and pops from a vinyl record) or at https:// www. from a live 1974 performance (I don’t know where) that compensates for occasionally-lesser-audio-quality with an extended (15:00) version featuring some of their characteristic guitar work.  As Saul in his story and our singers here attempt to advocate, “love is coming, love is coming to us all,” although it’ll never be an easy arrival.  As Son of Saul director/co-screenwriter Nemes says: “in such a dark story, I also believe there is a great deal of hope; in a total loss of morality, value and religion, a man who starts listening only to a faint voice within him to carry out a seemingly vain and useless deed finds morality and survival inside.”
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AND … here's our final set of links as to which 2015 films made various critic’s Top 10 listswhich ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the gaps between the critics' and the competitions' nominations hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-recipients (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success that you might want to monitor here, and the actual award-winners)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2015 and the Oscar winners for 2015 film releases.  And, just for comparison, here are the Independent Spirit Award winners where Spotlight also won Best Picture (they call it Best Feature, I guess to draw a clearer fiction/nonfiction distinction between what are usually called feature films as opposed to fact-based-documentaries).

Here’s more information about Son of Saul: (34:49 interview with director/co-screenwriter László Nemes, actor Géza Röhrig; audio may be lost for the opening seconds but it should pick up)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Nice work on the Oscar predictions. I can strongly recommend Eddie the Eagle, a true story about an underdog slightly handicapped Englishman whose dream is to be in the Olympics. Also Lady in the Van is interesting storytelling and another true story that takes place in seventies London.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for your comments and the recommendations. Ken