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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Son of Saul


Directed by Laszlo Nemes (2015)

It’s hard to know what it must have felt like to be at Auschwitz. And almost as hard to want to know enough to see this film. But we have a duty to the past – and the future.

Laszlo Nemes’ debut takes us right into the gas chambers, among the ‘pieces’, as the Nazis termed the dead bodies, and the living prisoners forced to dispose of them. Our experience is mediated by a single character, HungarianSaul Auslander (GezaRohrig), one of the Sonderkommando who, for doing this work, gain an extra few months of life.

We are up close to Saul almost the whole time, watching it all from his perspective in a cinematic equivalent of literature’s free indirect style. Things around him move in and out of focus and are often muffled as he tries to shut out the horror and get on with the job. We are drawn in and held there, a prisoner of Saul’s consciousness. This is a remarkable achievement in itself, but it also raises important questions, which I’ll come to later.

The numbed routine changes for Saul when they find a boy still breathing among the bodies. A doctor listens to his heart then coldly smothers him to death before ordering an autopsy.

Believing the boy to be his son – we never find out for sure whether this is true – Saul is consumed by a determination to give him a Jewish burial and he persuades a sympathetic medic to save the body for him.

To bury himproperly, though, he needs a rabbi, and his search for one drives the rest of the action.

While Saul weaves through new arrivals shuffling to certain death, grabbing at anyone who looks to have rabbinical sort of beard, in our peripheral vision his fellow Sonderkommando are plotting a bold escape.

They have managed to collect a modest arsenal for the uprising along with photographic evidence of the atrocities to take into the outside world. Saul is enlisted to collect some smuggled-in gunpowder from a woman prisoner he knows but is distracted by a putative rabbi on his way back and loses it.

He’s accused of putting the dead before the living and risking all their lives. “We’re already dead,” he replies.

The question is can we, should we, resist Saul’s pessimistic perspective? There is an invitation, here, to embrace death while reaching nobly for metaphysical consolation. It doesn’t matter whether the boy really was his son or a symbol of all our sons, nor whether a rabbi is a rabbi. It’s the thought that counts.

Is it this that makes us human, as some reviewers have suggested? Or is it the physical struggle, the revolt, of the other Sonderkommando, no matter the odds against them, suggesting another history was possible?

May 10, 2016

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