As I entered the lobby, I noticed an attractive middle-aged woman at the refreshment counter, purchasing a chocolate chip cookie. "This film had good reviews!" she exclaimed. She was preparing to be entertained. She sat not far from me in the theater. After about fifteen minutes of the movie – including graphic scenes of dead bodies – she got up and exited, not to return to that showing.]
The "Son of Saul" – part of the 'Off the Beaten Path' film series being shown currently, here at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro – is not for viewers who wish to be entertained. The movie is one of the grittiest, darkest, and most highly disturbing attempts to portray conditions at one of the premier concentration camps during Hitler's reign, and his manufacture of absolute terror, in a shape and form which humanity had never before witnessed.
Saul Auslander is a Hungarian Jew, and he is on the Sonderkommando team in his barracks. These less-than envious members, must clean up all the mess after the bodies of all 'Undesirables' (read here: particularly the Jews) are gassed, or otherwise shot or bludgeoned to death. They also shovel ashes from the crematoriums into the nearby river. They regularly must drag dead human beings to the furnaces, wash down the walls and floors after the dread deed is completed, and also search for gold, jewelry, and coins in the jackets of all of the individuals who have just been ordered to strip and take showers.
The intensity of the film is non-stop, and the grating sounds, fully as much as the offensive sights, contribute to the immediacy of the experience of the complete horrors of "The Concentration Camp" doing its damned best to end Civilization as we know it. When Saul is underground, there are clanking and creaking doors sounds of all kinds, and roars from the furnaces, along with the thumping of bodies as they are slung onto lifts and movable carts; and finally, there is all manner of wailing and crying – all of these jarring sounds are intermingled with one another. Near the start of the film, we hear the screams from the first group of people, just locked into a gassing room, as they attempt to pound their way out of that death chamber, when they discover the true purpose of this 'shower room.'
Saul then takes up a cause, as only an obsessed person may do, to preserve one boy's body, and to give him the proper funerary rites, as performed by a rabbi. [This search for a qualified rabbi, turns out to be quite futile, in the end.] The boy is not recognized by Saul's friends as his legitimate son; so if it is one that is not so, we never learn for certain. One might conclude that this particular figure suggested, instantly, for Saul, a chance to take on one act of redemption for all his people. If he can show the boy the proper respect as he leaves this earth during such tragic times, he is showing his god that he yet has hope for the dignity of man to persevere and to survive the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
Saul is drawn eventually into the local Underground, where there is a plot to receive, and then employ – explosive powder, strong enough to destroy a crematorium. His contact finally is a woman, whom we may conclude to be his wife.
Near the conclusion, we are finally taken to the Pit of Hell Itself: it is, of course, the large mass graves, where the prisoners are stripped, then shot, and lastly, shoved down into that last receiving bin of their human remains. There are fire-throwers all about that gaping hole, and the bits and 'pieces,' as they are often referred to in this work, are all set on raging fire.
Scenes outside are seldom peaceful, and when Saul first exits his underground horror chamber, we are met with the incessant pounding of hammers, as though transported into a bizarre version of Wagner's scene where the dwarves are shaping the magic Rhine-gold in the vast underworld where Alberich rules over them. The gold before us, might be compared with that which is taken from the occupants' teeth, once they have given up the ghost; the hammers seem to be fashioning more terrible and devastating weapons with super-destructive powers.
What can finally be said? Convincing performances exist all around – with an abundance of German guards' brutality toward 'The Inferior Race,' which was emphasized in one scene when one of the officers mimics Saul's gestures, and dances around like a monkey, commenting that the dance must be one of the 'hot shtetl dances.' The sounds and scenes throughout – as are all of the conditions in which a Sonderkommando must operate – are vivid and profoundly distressing to any viewer who has any type of human soul which is sensitive to the beyond-description evils which mankind has perpetrated upon its own members. The acting – especially by Geza Rohrig – is highly admirable. The direction commands our attention throughout the film, as we are continually shocked by one grizzly presentation after another.
Saul may manage to commit the one redemptive act of the film – at least the one most symbolic one. The attempt of the Underground to send out film of the insanities being committed there may not get out. However, the individual deeds of those who continue to act with hope and faith that this existence, with all of its apparent evils is yet a divine life, and is governed by a Higher Being, do not perish, and are imprinted for all time on the scrolls of eternal historical memory.
Freelance Writer for The Reformer – Charles Kroll