Saturday, November 26, 2016

Completed Once Again

Film: Son of Saul (Saul Fia)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the latest version of the 1001 Movies list came out, I’d seen seven of the new 10. It would seem, then, that finishing up would have been something I could pretty much handle in a weekend. And yet here we are, after Thanksgiving and close to the end of November, and I’m just putting the bow on the additions now. The reason for that is that I haven’t really wanted to watch Son of Saul (Saul Fia) that much. I’m not sure I can fully explain why, although I can try.

I understand on a rational level why there are so many films about the Holocaust. It’s the sort of thing that we need to remind ourselves happened. This is a part of history that needs to be constantly refreshed in the minds of the world, especially now that we are generations away from the actual events. But there’s also a limit, I think, to how much I want to spend in these events. I know a great deal of what happened. I understand, at least on an academic level, the horror of what happened. On an emotional level, I’m not sure how many more times I want to go through this wringer.

Son of Saul tells the story of Saul Auslander (Gesa Rohrig), a Hungarian Jew who has been placed in Auchwitz. Saul works as a Sonderkommando, or part of the “special unit” that deals with the dead. While prisoners are being exterminated, Saul and the other members of his team go through the clothing for valuables, then deal with the bodies and clean the floor of the gas chambers. One day, a young boy survives the gassing. Saul watches a Nazi doctor suffocate the boy and demand an autopsy to determine how he survived. Saul volunteers to bring the body to the prison doctor (Sandor Zsoter) and tries to convince him not to perform the autopsy. In fact, Saul wants to give the boy a proper burial.

The reason for this we don’t discover until later in the film. I’d call what I’m about to reveal a spoiler, except for the fact that this movie is called Son of Saul. The boy who survived the gassing is Saul’s illegitimate son, and now he feels responsible for the boy and wants to do right by him, giving him the proper Jewish burial, which requires a rabbi. Of course, arranging this is impossibly difficult. The bodies are sent to the crematoria straight away, and even in the rare cases of an autopsy, the bodies end up there anyway. And where would he bury the body? Or get the tools necessary? But still, Saul perseveres.

To get what he wants, Saul gets involved in a conspiracy to incite a revolt against the guards. Some wish to revolt openly, evidently preferring to be killed in battle than be led off to their deaths. Others hope to get their story to the outside world by sneaking pictures of the crematoria and the showers out of the camp. In both cases, there is very little hope of any sort of success. Saul, hoping that favors will be owed to him and that this may lead him to a rabbi willing and able to perform the service for his son, does what he can to aid anyone in a position that might aid him.

And really, that’s it. It’s a very dark, unpleasant version of Life is Beautiful in a way. We have a man incarcerated in a death camp who is risking his life and doing everything he can for the benefit of his son. In this case, of course, the son is dead, which adds a tragic and terrible air to something that is already by definition terrible and tragic. Movies like this are always a gut punch to me. I understand the importance and why these movies cry out to be seen. I just don’t always want to do it.

Geza Rohrig’s performance is an interesting one. He is almost constantly passive and expressionless. That would often be an issue, but here, it’s clear that Saul’s passivity and lack of evident emotion are both a defense mechanism and a way to avoid trouble with anyone who may have authority over him. Saul has no real hope, so his mask becomes something that allows him to simply survive. The discovery of his son doesn’t give him hope, but it does at least temporarily give him purpose, but by this point, the emotionless mask has become something that keeps him alive and protects his secrets.

Son of Saul is not a movie I really want to watch again. That’s honestly true of the bulk of Holocaust films, which is why there are a few still on the Oscar list for me to get through. I get why this is an important film. I even get why it won an Oscar, even without having seen the other nominees. I just reach my limit on this basic story very quickly these days. There’s only so much more emotional stretch I have in this direction any more.

But hey…I’m done for another year.

Why to watch Son of Saul: Some stories need to be told.
Why not to watch: It’s numbing.


  1. I found it amusing when I woke up this morning, ready to post my own review of this one, and saw you had done the same. :D

    We shared the general feelings of "why am I watching this", and I got even less out of the plot than you did, so yeah, not sure this winning Best Foreign Language Film warranted its automatic inclusion in the list. Nice to look at, though.

    1. Yeah, that's pretty much where I am for this. I suppose if I hadn't seen the massive list of Holocaust dramas I've already seen I'd be more impressed/moved/etc. by it.

      Yes, there is a part of me that feels guilty saying "been there, done that" when it comes to people in Auchwitz.

  2. "unpleasant version of Life is Beautiful" is a good way of putting it.
    The unrelenting closeups were intense. I think it was described as an anti-Schindler′s List, which attempts to reduce Hollywood sugarcoating. I remember Terry Gilliam in this clip criticized Spielberg(

    1. I've been thinking more about this, and I think it comes down to the fact that after Shoah and Night and Fog, I wonder how much there is that needs to be said.

      I know that's harsh, and there are literally millions of stories here to tell, but those two films I think sum up everything there is that needs to be learned about what it's like to survive horror and what that horror was like respectively.

      Gilliam's not wrong about Spielberg. My knock against him has been that he goes too quickly for soft sentimentality whenever he can in most of his movies. Sometimes (Saving Private Ryan) it works. Other times (War Horse) it fails miserably.

  3. Last year, when the 2015 additions to the List were announced, there were six I hadn't seen at a time when I thought I was making pretty good progress on the 1001 List films from 2006 to 2014. I decided that every year, so I don't feel like I'm falling behind when I still have more than 300 films from the List to see, I should try to see all the latest films within a few months. The new additions are announced in the fall and I try to see them all by my birthday (March 10), that gives me about six months.

    I didn't quite get them all under my belt by March 10, but I wasn't far off. I got Son of Saul from Netflix and I had it for a few days, sort of waiting for a time when I felt more in the mood to watch it. And yesterday afternoon it hit me that I would probably never be in the mood for it. Best to just put it in the DVD device and hit "play" and then send it back for another movie.

    Last night, I was rather glad that it was over and that I had it out of the way, but I must admit I've been thinking about it a lot. It's almost the "slice of life" Holocaust film. Saul has a difficult task to perform and he goes about it with determination and persistence. The time frame seems to be eight hours or not much more than that. Very long segments take place in real time, with these wonderful tracking shots, and you get to see a lot of what's going on in this camp, with much of it irrelevant to Saul's quest. A lot of the time you really don't what's going on. What's causing all that gunfire? Are they murdering prisoners? Has the revolt started? Are the Russians on our doorstep?

    I was never bored with it, so it was mostly a positive movie experience, but I didn't really get why it's on the List. When I think of Holocaust films I'd like to see again, I think of Night and Fog, the sublime anarchy of Seven Beauties, and Charlotte Rampling in the weirdly kinky The Night Porter.

    But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Son of Saul. It doesn't make me want to see it again, but I am a lot more likely to recommend it to some of my fellow film snobs.

    1. I get all of that, but at the same time, I'm also to the point where I honestly feel jaded about this sort of film. Sometimes it feels like there's going to be a film for everyone who was killed. I didn't realize that Seven Beauties was a Holocaust film, so I guess that's another one I'll be suffering through.

      Again, I realize that's kind of a terrible thing to say because there will always be things to say about this part of history. But at some point, I'm not sure how many more stories like this I can take.