The Hungarian film, Son of Saul, opens on Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando member at the Auschwitz concentration camp. German for “special unit,” the Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners tasked with disposing the bodies after mass executions and then cleaning and preparing the showers for the next group of victims. Saul silently helps prisoners strip while German soldiers bark orders. After the prisoners are locked away, Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos collect the clothes, look for personal property of value, and prep the staging room for the next slaughter. They do this task efficiently—all emotion drained from their souls long ago—until the screams from the showers rise to a deafening level, and the people inside try to claw their way back to safety. That is when Saul and the Sonderkommandos go to the doors and hold them shut while their brothers and sisters are gassed to death inside.

This is merely the first scene in a movie that catalogs the unbearable horror of history, yet it is one that must be witnessed. Not just by Saul, but by as many audience members as possible. As Saul holds that door closed, the look on his face is not just detachment and death, but confusion: How did I get here?

Director László Nemes drops the audience in the middle of Saul’s plight, foregoing scenes where we see Saul’s capture, dehumanization, and eventual acceptance of his role in the camps. Nemes is not reconstructing a series of steps that led to this moment but suggesting that it is possible to wake up one day and find the world burning. Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély shoot the entirety of Son of Saul in shallow focus, limiting our vision to Saul’s face with the events and actions behind him murky, fuzzy, and just beyond vision. We know what is happening, but does Saul? Could he see what was happening before it was too late? It’s as if Nemes is asking: How did we get here? A powerful reminder that things can get bad awful quick if we’re not paying attention. Son of Saul demands that we sit up and do just that.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Son of Saul // Saul fia (2015)
Directed by László Nemes
Written by László Nemes, Clara Royer
Produced by Gábor Rajna, Gábor Sipos
Starring: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
Playtime, Rated R, Running time 107 minutes, Opened Dec. 18, 2015.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 32, “Son of Saul to close Boulder Jewish Film Festival.”