Laszlo Nemes

7.4 Saul Fia/ Son of Saul
7.0 Sunset

Laszlo Nemes (Hungary, 1977)

Saul Fia/ Son of Saul (2015) is a psychological drama set in a concentration camp that borrows the fast pace of the prison thriller. It basically tells the progressive madness of one of the prisoners, who has spent his days washing the gas chambers and suddenly becomes an irrational force of nature, determined to give proper burial to a dead stranger who he has adopted as his own son. The film avoids the macabre and the revolting by shooting most scenes in a close-up that leaves the background action out of focus, although the blurred scenes are easy to understand (e.g., naked corpses). The film is not interested in the atrocities. The film is interested in the psychological devastation of the protagonist. Mostly, the film shows the face of the protagonist, a laconic prisoner, a metaphysical mask that we try to decipher but who keeps still and inscrutable although we suspect it is hiding fear, anger, disgust; when it doesn't show its face, the film shows us repeatedly the red "X" painted on the back of his shirt. The film is basically a cryptic documentary of his personal torment. We know neither the motives for his stubborn and life-threatening project nor the self-justification for serving the persecutors. We can only guess that something unbearable is going on inside that emotion-less face. We are also left to wonder what the connection is between his torment and his guilt. He is one of the Jews who helped the Nazis kill Jews, in exchange for his own life. Now he is willing to risk his life not to save lives but to bury his son, who is probably not even his son. The film doesn't focus on this, but we are fully aware that there is a secondary atrocity besides the primary atrocity of the concentration camp: these Jews are passively helping the Nazis kill Jews, by cleaning up the gas chamber and disposing of the corpses , and they accept any level of humiliation. They don't rebel for as long as their gruesome work postpones their death sentence. They rebel only when they realize that their turn has come.

In 1944 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp an expression-less man assists the Jews who are being asked to strip naked for a collective shower. Some of them cry, sensing more than a shower. The the doors shut behind them and we hear them scream. It is obviously a gas chamber. The man is already busy picking the clothes left behind by the victims. Obviously he has done it before. He and his coworkers get on their knees to wash the bloodied floor of the gas chamber while others drag away the naked corpses. These workers have an X marked in the back, which identifies them as Jewish prisoners, presumably destined to be gased some other day. The workers spot a lone survivor, a child who is still breathing. The silent man volunteers to carry this child to the doctor's room, where autopsies are carried out. An official quickly killes the child and then demands an autopsy. The silent prisoner begs the doctor not to cut this boy. The doctor is a prisoner too and promises to let the man spend some time alone with the dead boy. We finally hear his name: Saul. These are all Jews forced to dispose of killed Jews, knowing that they will be next. Saul starts looking for a rabbi to bury the child while some kind of rebelliom is being planned. A prisoner who works as a carpenter is hiding a camera with which he takes photographs of the atrocities. He tries to take pictures while the guards and the workers carry the bodies out and set them on fire, but there is too much smoke. Saul risks his life helping him. He risks his life to join the wrong group of convicts, only to be able to approach the rabbi who keeps his identity secret. This group is charged with shoveling the ashes into the river. Saul recognizes the rabbi, but the rabbi refuses to cooperate, too busy shoveling ashes of Jews and too scared of the German guards. Saul throws the rabbi's shovel into the river and then stops the rabbi who is walking into the water to get it back. The German guards are puzzled and, after a brief interrogation, Saul is sent back to work. When Saul gets back to the gas chamber, the corpse of the boy has disappeared. Saul desperately searches through the heaps of naked corpses that are being disposed of. Saul doesn't seem to care about anything else. The other prisoners are plotting something, collecting money to bribe the guards and waiting for a package from someone named Ella. Saul responds only when he sees the prisoner doctor, who tells him that the corpse of the boy is hidden in the autopsy room. He takes the corpse and hides it in his barracks. When told by the chief of the conspirators that they are getting more weapons, he simply replies that he has to find a rabbi. He is asked to clean a table in the office of the prison's captain while the Germans are discussing how to finish off the one thousand remaining Jews. A coworker of his is asked to list the 70 least useful men, obviously a list of people to gas. And, still, Saul doesn't even seem to hear what is going on around him. The others fully understand that they are going to be the next batch of cadavers, but Saul doesn't even want to help with their escape plan. Eventually he accepts to go to the women's barracks to pick up the package from this Ella. The women are busy sorting out suitcases, presumably of the Jews who have been killed. They stare at each other for a long time, as if they knew each other well, too well, and she utters his name, but nothing else transpires. He brings back the package, then he joins a chaotic crowd of Jews being escorted towards the a mass grave. The Jews are being stripped naked, shot, thrown into the mass grave and then burned with napalm. In the chaos of screams and gunshots he asks everybody whether they know a rabbi. He finds one and tries to take him away but he is almost thrown into the mass grave with everybody else. He finds a French rabbi and saves his life, He tells the rabbi that he needs him to bury hiw own son. We are left to wonder whether that dead boy is truly his son (which would be too much of a coincidence, the only survivor of that batch) or this is just an excuse to justify his madness to the others. The others, in fact, don't believe that his French prisoner is a rabbi, nor do they believe that Saul has a son. They are furious that he lost Ella's package: the package contained the gunpowder that the conspirators needed for their escape. He didn't lose it: he traded it for his life when he was about to be thrown in the mass grave. He is obsessed with burying his son even when the Germans start rounding them up. Now the prisoner doctor is also in trouble: he tells Saul to find him a corpse of another boy. Then hell breaks loose. The prisoners are sent to clean up the gas chamber and realize that the clothes belong to fellow prisoners like them, the ones who work for the Nazis. This time the prisoners rise up and attack the German guards. A few manage to escape and run through the forest. Saul carries the boy's corpse on his back and helps the French rabbi escape with him. When he is deep into the woods, Saul stops and starts digging a grave with his hands. He begs the rabbi to start reciting the ritual prayer, but this French prisoner is no rabbi. When the German soldiers approach, the fake rabbi runs away with all the other fugitives. Saul has no choice: he jumps in the river with the others, but still carries the boy's corpse with him. He almost drowns and is rescued by the doctor, but loses his corpse. The fugitives find shelter in an abandoned building. They are talking of joining the partisans. A boy sees them and Saul sees the boy. Saul smiles. We understand that he sees his son alive in that boy. The boy runs away. German troops are coming. We hear the gunshots that end Saul's life.

The enigmatic Napszallta/ Sunset (2018), set at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I, another exercise in long shots, complemented by Matyas Erdely’s cinematography and Laszlo Melis’ dissonant music.

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