There is a moment in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah when he interviews a barber, Abraham Bomba. The man cuts the hair of men in his shop and, as he does, Lanzmann is asking about his experience in the concentration camps.
Initially, he is factual, recounting the events one step at a time. But, as he continues, he explains how his duty was to prepare women for the gas chambers. He’d cut their hair, knowing they’d die. The guilt is overwhelming and the man breaks down. It is an extraordinary moment in the 9-hour documentary and reveals how vital Lanzmann’s documentation of these experiences, so soon after the events, is. Bomba, in Treblinka, was part of the Sonderkommando – a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the gas chambers. If they refused, they would be killed.
Son of Saul could be about that barber; a broken man desperate to find a single moment of forgiveness for sins he’s been forced to commit. The film begins with a description of Sonderkommando before we are walked to the claustrophobic space of a chamber. We are then pushed intimately close to Saul (Géza Röhrig). Often refusing to cut away, we are on his shoulder and see the beads of sweat on his neck and the dirt on his ears. In the background, blurred, are the horrific events of Auschwitz. The busy groups assisted to remove their clothes, as Saul silently places jackets on pegs and directs the crowd into the next room. The enormous door is pulled shut and the noise grows. We don’t need words, description or clarity to know what’s going on. The cacophony of banging, shouting and screams get louder and the Sonderkommando all wait outside, in muted horror. Cut to the removal of the corpses. There’s a sense that the out-of-focus bodies represents how, to even cope, Saul has to block out what is happening. But, among the bodies, one young boy survives. Despite this miraculous moment, an SS Guard murders him anyway as Saul looks on. This child needs to be buried and Saul decides to do everything in his power to find a Rabbi and bury the boy respectfully.
While the thrust of the story is finding a rabbi for this child, we are witness to threads of other events that are crucial to our understanding of the Holocaust. The Sonderkommando are plotting to rise up against the guards. They speak in hushed voices and short, brief conversations. They’re aware that, in time, they will be placed on a list to be killed and replaced. The combination of these two stories, weaving together seamlessly, means that the scope of Son of Saul is vast while simultaneously recounting an intimate story. In one significant sequence as Saul looks for a Rabbi, he is pulled up to an SS Guard. We are filled with fear as it is clear his life hangs in the balance. The Guard asks what language he speaks, and replying that he’s Hungarian, the guard responds, “Hungarian is such an elegant language”. It is a passing moment but, rather than see it as a reason for Saul to live, we’re reminded of the countless others who didn’t.
While the guards bark orders, Saul is often silent. The parallel between Saul and the boy is what raises this film to the level of masterpiece. Saul, like the child, was sent to the camp to die. In both cases, while Saul was selected to be Sonderkommando and survive, the son was selected to survive the gas chamber. This is the significance of his burial and why Saul is connected to the child. The two are linked by their desperate need for survival. We are aware he has nothing to feel guilty for but it is clear that this act of burial is atonement for, what he believes, are his sins. Shocking, traumatic and deeply powerful, Son of Saul is a triumph of filmmaking, storytelling and historical record, and you cannot afford to miss it.