Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Psalm 139:8 KJV
Director László Nemes’s Oscar winner (Best Foreign Film 2015), set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944, focuses upon two days in the life of one character and his obsession that makes him almost oblivious to the momentous happenings around him. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jewish prisoner, barely surviving the ongoing gassings because he is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jews who, swallowing their shame, work with the Nazis in selecting victims for the gas chambers and then clean up the blood and excrement left in the chambers and drag the bodies to pits or the ovens. For their work they are given extra rations and freer range to move about the camp, but eventually they too are destined to be executed by the Nazi authorities.
A young boy who survives a gassing attracts Saul’s attention—either he is his son or Saul is mixing the two together. However, the doctor tells Saul that he must put the boy down because he has been ordered to extract and turn in some of the boy’s organs. Thereafter Saul becomes obsessed with providing a decent burial for the lad. Even though a fellow prisoner reminds him that he does not need a rabbi to recite the Kaddish over the corpse, nonetheless, Paul insists on finding one.
For two days Saul moves about asking for a rabbi. To the disgust of his associates, he ignores everything else. The work tempo has been stepped up due to the approaching Soviet forces so that everyone is in a frantic state of mind. Some prisoners are planning an armed uprising to prevent their eminent execution. The planners fear that Saul might upset their plans. Also circulating among the prisoners is the rumor that an order has been issued to execute the current Sonderkommandos.
Saul’s obsession for burying the boy’s corpse with a measure of dignity seems the height of folly, and yet it also reveals that the Nazis have not been able to destroy all traces of humanity in him. There have been dozens upon dozens of Holocaust films, each a powerful attempt to fulfill the promise “Never again,” but László Nemes makes us feel more immersed in the situation than any that I have seen. He does this partly by the use of his camera and partly by having actor Géza Röhrig banish all signs of emotion from his face.
Except for one or two shots we never see Saul’s full body, the shots being close-ups of his face or head and shoulder shots, the latter often of Saul’s back. At times it seems that we are trying to keep up with the man as he frantically moves through the camp in search of a rabbi. We see a great deal of the red X on his back, signifying his status of Sonderkommando. The focus is shallow, so that while Saw is dragging corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoriums or burial pits, we can barely make out their naked forms. This produces an almost claustrophobic feeling, with everything focused just upon Saul. We often do not know what is going on around him: our eyes deprived of the details, we have only our ears to pick up sounds and distressed or barking orders voices, none of which are pleasant or reassuring. We are as uncertain of things as is Saul and his fellow prisoners.
Saul’s emotion-drained face takes on a dehumanized form, a mask covering up the fact that the wearer is dead. Well, not quite dead. At the end Saul’s face does change, taking on an almost beatific expression, this in reaction to the momentary presence of another boy. This raises him above, and we might say, beyond, his present grim circumstances. Some have complained that this film, a story of hard to imagine horror, is too depressing, offering absolutely no hope. Apparently they have missed the import of this. For people of faith this is a story in which Good Friday almost obliterates any hope of Easter, but to the eyes of faith, the ending offers a faint glimmer of hope. Just be sure that you don’t blink, lest you miss seeing it—and by all means don’t watch this dark film alone.
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.