The plot of Son of Saul seems simple. Saul, a Sonderkommando, decides to have a traditional Jewish burial for the body of a boy he believes to be his son. Sonderkommandos are Jewish prisoners who have been given the job of operating the gas chambers in the Nazi camps, cleaning up after the act, taking care of the dead bodies and managing all the logistics that comes with killing people in gas chambers. These people have a special status because they have been chosen for this important job but they are never indispensable. And although this special status means living for a few days longer, their life is perhaps more difficult than the other Jews who are killed immediately. These Sonderkommandos must watch several generations of people from their community dying a horrible death everyday knowing that the same fate awaits them.
Working in the camps has made these people lose all their emotional hangups and attachments and everything is seen purely in terms of choosing between your own life and death. The hopelessness that comes with being a Sonderkommando is seen in the empty eyes of Saul in the opening scene. When he notices the boy who is struggling with his last breaths after being through the awful ordeal of the gas chamber, there is a sudden spark of urgency, a sense of purpose that awakens within him. Over the course of the film, we come to understand that the burial of this boy means more than just a religious ritual. It is a symbol of a frantic quest for penance and making up for all the guilt that comes with being a Sonderkommando. The act is also symbolic of the defiance of the Nazi propaganda and a refusal to be eliminated as the Germans intend their community to be. This final act of Saul is a desperate attempt to make himself human again.
It is not just the plot but the context and setting of the movie that make it so brilliant. Shown from the limited perspective of Saul, the horrors of the concentration camp are only visible in the background but they are just as heartbreaking as any other Holocaust documentary you might watch. The clever camera work ensures that the perspective of Saul adds another dimension of desperation, tragedy and claustrophobia to these events.
Saul’s obsessiveness about this burial can be frustrating at times and indeed, it is confusing that Saul is obsessed with finding meaning in having a funeral for a seemingly unknown boy but remains uninterested in the planned uprising against the Germans. There is a suggestion that Saul may have lost his mental balance, that he is so overwhelmed by the guilt and desperation of his situation that his meaning for existence has boiled down to doing right for his “son”. I found this explanation very believable and by showing this, the film succeeds in exploring the subject of the mental torture of the Jews in the Holocaust and giving it as much importance as their physical torture in the camps.
This is a movie that treats the subject of Holocaust with the solemnity and respect that it deserves while still succeeding in making it engrossing for the audience. Some may consider this a hard watch, and it is, but this is a movie that is important to watch for its substance, the superior technical film-making skills and the handling of its grim subject matter.
It is a hard hitting movie that leaves an impact for days after you have watched it and for me, it is the best Holocaust movie that I have seen and one of the most important films of this decade.