Review: Horrific ‘Son of Saul’ searches for a blessing

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Brutal and brilliant, “Son of Saul” may be the most harrowing film ever made about the Holocaust, which should give you an idea of how hard it is to watch. This is mankind at its worst, even as one soul tries to persevere among the horrors.

That soul would be Saul (Geza Rohrig), a sonderkammando at a concentration camp that is likely Auschwitz. Sonderkammados were Jewish prisoners charged with doing the camp’s dirty work; after a few months service — and Saul has served a few months — they, too, are killed.

As the film opens, Saul and others are guiding trainloads of newly arrived Jews straight to the gas chambers, although the soon-to-be victims are being told they are just going to take a mass shower and then be given hot soup.

After the chamber doors are closed and the victims gassed, the sonderkommandos rummage through the clothes and articles left behind, looking for valuables to turn over to the Nazis. Then they go about lugging the naked dead bodies out of the chamber and scrubbing the floors.

At this point a minor miracle occurs: A young boy is found alive, coughing among the dead. Saul watches as the boy is carried to a table — where a Nazi doctor promptly suffocates the child.

Something in the boy touches Saul. Could it be his own son, does it remind him of a son? No matter, he sets out on a quest to find a rabbi to bless the dead boy before an autopsy is performed, taking him to all corners of the camp on a frantic and life-threatening quest. This quest is complicated even more by a jailbreak conspiracy among the sonderkammandos that Saul is a part of.

First-time Hungarian feature director Laszlo Nemes, who also co-wrote, is constantly on the move as the camera follows Saul from one horrific scene to the next, clinging tight to the man’s desperation. Time is running out for Saul right from the beginning; all he’s looking for is a blessing. In this bleak world, blessings are hard to find.

Tom Long is the former film critic

for The Detroit News.

‘Son of Saul’

GRADE: A

Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity

Running time: 107 minutes