‘Son of Saul’ unflinchingly portrays Holocaust horrors

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Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig as Saul, a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers and cremation ovens at Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig as Saul, a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers and cremation ovens at Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

For decades, dramas such as “Schindler’s List,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” have taken audiences behind the barbed wire fences of Nazi concentration camps, where 11 million people were executed during the Holocaust.

But “Son of Saul,” Hungary’s submission for the Academy Awards, aims for a more visceral depiction of the death camps. The film (now showing in New York and Los Angeles; expanding to additional cities throughout January and February) is told from the perspective of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944, who saves a child’s body from the cremation ovens and attempts to find a rabbi to give him a proper burial.

“Films dealing with the Holocaust seem to have taken the Holocaust for its dramatic value, and not really interrogated its essence and the human situation,” says first-time director László Nemes. “It’s not a story about survival — the rule is death. All the films try to avoid crematoriums, whereas the crematoriums are the heart of the Holocaust.”

When Nemes read victims’ journals a decade ago at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, he was introduced to the moral dilemma of “Sonderkommandos” (command units of Jewish inmates forced to help in the extermination and disposal of bodies). Years later, he wrote a script and found financing through the national film fund in his native Hungary. Since winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in May, “Saul” has earned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film and is widely considered an Oscar front-runner in the same category.

“Saul” is the first major acting role for Röhrig, a Hungarian-born poet who lives and works in New York as a Judaic studies teacher. “In so many ways, components of my personal journey came into this movie in a very beneficial way,” says Röhrig, who was orphaned at age 4, expelled from high school for anti-Communist activities, and later published his first poetry book about Auschwitz.

Video courtesy of film tribe via YouTube

“We’re not in a position to pass judgment because we’re not in their shoes — this is such an extreme human situation,” Röhrig says. In a way, the Nazis “basically deprived (Sonderkommandos) even the solace of seeming innocent. They brought the Jews down to the bottom levels of their own morality and made partners of them. They made Cain out of Abel.”

(Patrick Ryan writes for USA Today)