In his debut picture, "Son of Saul," Hungarian director and screenwriter László Nemes tells the story of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz named Saul. Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, embarks on an impossible quest: to give the body of a boy a proper burial.
During the immediate years after World War II, the Sonderkommandos were seen as traitors and Nazi collaborators by the Jewish community. Factions of male prisoners selected for their physical strength, the Sonderkommandos, or "Special Unit Squads," were forced to work in the crematoriums, burning the bodies of gas chamber victims and disposing of the ashes. In a sense, they received special treatment. They were better fed and more well-dressed, but they were also isolated from the other prisoners.
Nemes says that in his film he wants to rehabilitate the Sonderkommando. They were, after all, forced under threat of death to complete their work. "Nobody knows what they had to go through," Nemes told The Frame. "With this film I wanted to suggest that the camp prevents the individual from thinking. I wanted to say that the moral responsibility will always lay with the perpetrators, never with the victims."
Nemes also wanted to imagine the individual's daily experience in the camps. This is in contrast to Hollywood treatments of the Holocaust, which tend to take a wide scope of historical events and overwhelmingly focus on stories of those who made it out alive. Nemes's own extended family perished in Auschwitz, and he wanted to focus on the daily struggle for spiritual survival — whether the individual physically survived the experience or not.
Thus, Saul's quest is a moral one. The boy he finds is already dead; he may be Saul's son, and he may not be. But it is a fight for humanity, and for life, nonetheless.
Read more of László Nemes's conversation with John Horn below, in which he discusses his motivations for making the film, the importance of sound design, and how he urged his actors to strive for a very subdued style of acting.
I have a big part of my family that was taken to Auschwitz to be killed. I don’t have really a family because of Auschwitz, in a way. So that’s something that defined me from a very early age. And I wanted to talk about it because I had the feeling the so-called Holocaust films have established a paradigm of survival, and of distance — just reassuring the audiences. I really wanted to find a way to imagine, and to feel, what it was like to be an individual in the midst of the Holocaust.
And as you and everyone else should know, two-thirds of all European Jews were killed during the Holocaust. So, it’s very clear that the intention of the film is to not talk about the survivors, but about those who’ve died. And you’ve said in your notes for this film, that this film does not tell the story of the Holocaust, but it really seems to. I’m curious why you said that and what that means to you.
It’s one day and a half in the life of an inmate in Auschwitz, who is a member of the Sonderkommando, the special squad that had to work in the crematorium to burn the bodies and get rid of the ashes. So, we didn’t try to describe the whole process of the Holocaust. We just wanted to immerse the viewer in the situation, with the main character. But in a restrained way. We wanted to give a face to the Holocaust. The Holocaust has become a word. Almost an abstraction. And we wanted to give the human measure. And that’s why we’re, in the film, with the main character. We never leave him.
There are two very important stylistic choices you make. One is to stay with Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, the entire film. But you also make a very specific choice to use sound almost as the narration for the story. That we hear, as an audience, a lot of what is happening around Saul, even if we don’t see it with our own eyes. Could you talk a little bit about how important sound was to the making of this film, and what sound gives the audience that the images don’t?
The sounds are there to suggest that there is much more than the picture. The sounds give a constant reference point of the infinity of the suffering, and the enormity of the machinery of extermination. It’s also made of layers of human voices. Whispers and orders and so on.
The sound is like a living organism in this film. You cannot always identify the source of the sounds. It’s, I think, reflecting in a way the situation of the individual within the concentration camp. You don’t have the full picture. You only see very little, or know very little. But there are sounds coming to you constantly. So, we wanted to rely more on the imagination of the viewer. To have an intuition of what’s going on and sound was extremely important in designing this immersive experience for the viewer.
This movie is not only about the ways in which the Nazis were very efficient at killing, but also at corrupting and controlling the morality of those they enlisted to help them kill. And those are the Sonderkommandos. Could you talk a little more about this group of people, and how they have been interpreted in the past in history, and what you wanted to say about them in this film?
The Sonderkommandos are a special group. They are people who are effected to the crematoriums of Auschwitz, chosen for their physical abilities — basically men in good shape, only men — who are forced to work in the crematorium and remain the bearers of secrets. That’s how they’re referred to in official terminology of the camp. The Sonderkommando are the bearers of secrets. They are the first witnesses of the extermination machine.
And these people knew that they would be liquidated after a few months because they knew about the secrets. They were isolated from the rest of the camp. But they were also better fed. And they could use clothes taken from the departed people. So actually they were privileged, in a way. But they had this incredible, terrifying task of erasing the traces of the extermination. In a way, erasing the history of their own people.
And they wanted to communicate about the destruction of the Jewish people. A lot of them wrote journals and put these writings into the ground. And some of the writings were found after the war, some not — probably most of the writings will never be found — and they also wanted to take pictures, which they did. The only remaining pictures of the extermination in Auschwitz were taken by them and smuggled out. And also, they were the only people who carried out the only armed rebellion in the history of Auschwitz, in 1944.
And I wanted to talk about them because they were, in the postwar years, considered as traitors.
That they were complicit somehow.
Yeah. Collaborators. But, nobody knows what they had to go through. And they didn’t have the choice. With this film I wanted to suggest that the camp prevents the individual from thinking, and you’re conditioned not to think or see. In a way thinking comes after the war. So I wanted to say that the moral responsibility will always lay with the perpetrators, never with the victims.
The first time that we see Géza Röhrig, who plays Saul, he is alive, but he is dead. His eyes are dead; he doesn’t look anybody in the face. When you’re working with your actor about playing Saul, what are the conversation that you have about how to play this character? And why did you choose him? He’s not a very experienced actor. He’s a Hungarian person who’s probably best known for his music. How did you end up casting him?
I really needed someone who was, in a way, my main character. In his body and soul. He immediately felt the kind of low-key acting that we needed from him. So I only had to make small adjustments or just keep him low key. We are, within in the world of the Sonderkommandos, in a state of trauma. They were, in a way, dead already. They had to refrain from projecting too much of their 2014, postwar emotions onto their parts. All the actors had to do that.
What happens to Saul in the course of this film is while other people are figuring out how they might rebel against the Nazis, Saul decides to do something more personal. Saul sees a boy who may be his son, may not be his son, and he wants to do something for this boy. He wants to give him a proper burial. How did you settle on that story and what is it that Saul feels is so important to do, and why is it important to him?
What I really liked about the character — and that’s how I wrote him with Clara [Royer], my co-writer — is that he’s very simple. He’s not an intellectual. He feels things, and it’s very primal. He wants to bury this child. And that had to be very low-key. And he is not a hero. Our main character is not a hero; that is very important, I think. He’s an ordinary man. But at the same time, there’s something sacred in him. He becomes, without knowing, a saint.
The question of the film is the question [of] whether, when there’s no more hope, can there be still an inner voice that allows us to remain human? This film is not about the physical survival. It is about the survival of humanity. And that’s why I wanted to have this very simple storyline. Almost a primitive story, an archaic tale. And there are questions in the film, and we want the audience to have these questions.
"Son of Saul" is currently playing in theaters. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and it's on the shortlist for an Academy Award nomination under Foreign Language Films.