Son of Saul is a 2015 film from Hungary, directed by Laszlo Nemes.
It is set in October 1944, at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Saul Auslander is a Sonderkommando, one of the squads of Jewish prisoners used to assist in mass murder in the Birkenau crematoria. It is Saul's job, along with the other Sonderkommandos, to get Jews selected for murder undressed and into the "shower" rooms. After a Nazi threw the cyanide gas in and all the Jews were killed, the Sonderkommandos would go through their belongings for valuables, as well as remove the bodies from the gas chamber and take them to the crematoria, and then clean the gas chambers to receive the next group of murder victims.
One day Saul, who goes through his tasks in a machine-like, disassociated state, is shocked to see that a pre-teen boy somehow survived the gas chamber and is still breathing. And it's doubly shocking, because the boy is his son. A Nazi doctor promptly suffocates the boy to death, but Saul becomes determined to give his son a proper funeral with proper Jewish rites, as opposed to letting the body burn in the crematoria. Meanwhile, the Sonderkommandos, who are acutely aware that they themselves will be murdered soon, are organizing a rebellion, smuggling in weapons and explosives to the camp.
Various similarities in plot and tone were noted between this film and The Grey Zone, though Nemes stated that his film was intended as a challenge to the other, arguing that The Grey Zone relied too heavily on emotional upheaval and shock value; as such, he employed more stark realism and minimalism, as demonstrated by the majority of the film taking place close behind Saul.
The film received universal acclaim upon its release. It won, among others, the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Critic's Choice Award, Independent Spirit Award, and BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes.
- Ambiguous Situation: It's hard to tell whether the boy is truly Saul's son, Saul's mind is breaking down from the horrible situation he's in, or it's metaphor.
- Battle Discretion Shot: The camera stops following Saul for the first time at the end of the film, instead following a young boy moving through the forest as the gunshots presumably killing Saul are heard in the background.
- Contrived Coincidence: Averted—assuming that the boy actually is Saul's son, anyway. All the Jews of Hungary were taken to Auschwitz to be murdered, the other death camps having been shut down by October 1944, so a Hungarian Jew like Saul at Auschwitz could well have seen someone he knew.
- Crapsack World: It's fucking Auschwitz.
- Downer Beginning: The film opens with Saul's daily task of luring Jews into gas chambers without letting them know that they're being led to their death; within minutes their panicked, dying screams can be heard.
- Downer Ending: Laszlo Nemes said in an interview that most Holocaust films—Schindler's List, The Pianist, etc—focus on a survivor. He set out to make a movie in which the protagonist dies. Saul and the Sonderkommandos who escaped with him are massacred seemingly within minutes of clearing the camp when SS guards hunt them down. Not to mention that the driving motivation of the film leads to this — not only is it ambiguous as to to whether or not the body is actually that of his son, but the prisoner who purports to be a rabbi turns out to be a fraud. Saul then loses the body in the water, failing to give him a proper funeral.
- Due to the Dead: Saul's whole motivation, to hold a proper funeral for his son—or whoever the boy is. Unfortunately the rabbi turns out to be nothing more than a fraud, and Saul loses the body in the water.
- Epic Tracking Shot: The first scene is a four-minute tracking shot following Saul as he goes about his work ushering Jews into the crematoria for murder. Then every other scene is just like that. The camera never leaves Saul for the entire film (until the last thirty seconds, that is), following him around everywhere in tracking shot after tracking shot, usually either right by his face if he's in conversation or right behind his shoulder if he's walking somewhere.
- Extremely Short Timespan: A day and a half, Oct. 6-7, 1944.
- Gas Chamber: The Auschwitz crematoria, shown in horrifying detail.
- Gorn: Oh look, piles of corpses.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Sort of. Although the horrors of the crematoria are shown, the film doesn't actually focus on dead bodies a whole lot. Most of the shots of corpses are framed with the corpses out of focus or shot obliquely, as the camera holds a tight closeup on Saul in the foreground at all times. This is likely to symbolize how Saul has internally disassociated from what is going on around him.
- The Hero Dies: Saul is presumably shot dead in the end (although the shooting happens offscreen), as Nemes wanted a Holocaust story about a protagonist who dies.
- Hope Spot: A brief moment when Saul and some other Sonderkommandos seem to have escaped the camp. They find refuge in a shed and start talking about joining the Polish resistance. Then the SS shows up.
- In-universe, Saul's son has apparently survived the gassing. Unlike another film where such a thing happens, the boy is suffocated immediately.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Most of the horrible going-ons of Auschwitz are off-camera as the action follows only Saul, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps with what they know occurred at the death camp — which in itself is almost beyond comprehension or imagination.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: After all the trouble Saul goes through to give his "son" a proper funeral, the rabbi is revealed to be a fraud, the corpse is lost in a river, and Saul is shot to death by the SS.
- Shown Their Work: The depiction of the operation and design of the crematoria is highly accurate. A rebellion of Sonderkommandos did happen at Birkenau in October 1944, as depicted, with a few of the Sonderkommandos briefly escaping. Women working in the clothing detail helped smuggle explosives, as shown in the movie. The clandestine photos being snapped by a Sonderkommando are also real.
- Sound-Only Death: The whole movie, the camera never strays more than a few feet away from Saul—until the very end. A Polish boy shows up at the abandoned barn where Saul and the other Sonderkommandos are huddled. The camera then leaves Saul, following the Polish boy as he runs away from the barn, the SS guards dash past him, and gunfire rings out signaling the death of Saul and his companions.
- The beginning of the film depicts the routine gassing of a group of Jews, though we only hear their screams of fright as they realize that they're being killed.
- Stage Whisper: Many conversations take place only in whispers, given the secretive nature of the narrative; that the audience is so close to Saul makes it only the more intimate. The effect is heightened when listening to the film with headphones, making it sound as though characters really are whispering from a distant direction.
- Survivorship Bias: A deliberate aversion, as Nemes wished to make a film about a Holocaust victim that actually died in the Holocaust.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: Although it's never definitively stated, it's hinted that the boy isn't really Saul's son and that Saul may not even have a son. One of his friends says specifically that Saul doesn't have a son. Notably, Saul never says the boy's name.
- Wham Line: An unusual variation: That Rabbi Braun stumbles over the Kaddish shows that he doesn't even know it, and is a fraud, thus failing Saul on his mission.
- Your Cheating Heart: Saul's son is the product of an affair with his mistress.
- Your Days Are Numbered: The Sonderkommandos are acutely aware that their reprieve is temporary. When an SS overseer demands the kapo give him 70 names of people he "can do without", the Sonderkommandos know it's time for the revolt.