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‘Son of Saul’ director took an individual approach to Nazi horrors

For Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes, the essential reasons he made “Son of Saul” were to “continue to remind everyone of why we should never forget the Holocaust, but also — I believe for the first time — to reveal the death camp experience from the point of view of an individual within the camp.”

The Golden Globe-winning film, which many believe is the leading candidate for the best foreign film Oscar, showcases the role played by the Sondercommandos — select Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the waning days of World War II. The entire film is shot from the perspective of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew who is a member of one of the crews who escort fellow Jews to the gas chambers, assist them as they undress (thinking they are going into shower rooms), clean up the death chambers afterward — and then burn the bodies.

Director Laszlo Nemes accepts his Golden Globe Award for “Son of Saul” on January 10, 2016. | NBCUniversal
Director Laszlo Nemes accepts his Golden Globe Award for “Son of Saul” on January 10, 2016. | NBCUniversal

In reality, the various Sondercommando teams were only allowed to live for three or four months, as the Nazis’ hideous plan was to eliminate any witnesses to their mass killing of millions.

Nemes’ inspiration for “Son of Saul” came from a book he came across based on the diaries of Sondercommandos that had been hidden and did not surface until after the war.

From Nemes’ point of view, “it was essential that I convey in a visceral way how limited the choices were for those people.” As explained by Geza Rohrig, the actor who portrays Saul in the film, “that is exactly what was the most appalling and demonic aspect of the Nazis’ system: a process that had the most amount of Jews and the least amount of Germans involved in the actual killing.

“By doing what they did, the Nazis deprived people of their souls. They were soiled by the blood of their own brothers and sisters. … I think the Sondercommandos were truly involuntary assistants to the killing. They were so psychologically traumatized they allowed themselves to do what they did. They were forced to do it by the threat of death. It’s an example of how far people will go to survive — even if they know it’s only for a few more months. Of course, they were hoping the Soviets would soon arrive and liberate the camp. For many, I believe that’s what kept them going.”

In the film, Saul discovers the body of a boy he believes is his son. It becomes his obsession to find a rabbi in the camp who could recite the mourner’s Kaddish (Jewish prayers for the dead) and then bury the boy.

Because of the way Nemes and his team shot “Son of Saul,” Rohrig, who previously had acted a bit but is primarily a poet and writer, “the experience was a very lonely one for me. … Those 28 days of shooting [the movie] were so solitary for me. I had zero experiences in my own life that would have qualified me to understand the kind of reality those men had to face. I had to remain very focused and try to imagine that. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”