27 October 2016



The year is 1944. Saul Ausländer is a Hungarian Jew incarcerated in Auschwitz concentration camp. The camp was situated in Poland in land annexed by Germany's Third Reich. As a matter of fact, Auschwitz was actually made up of three camps. Pay attention now, students...!

Auschwitz 1 was the original camp. Auschwitz-2- Birkenau was a combination concentration/extermination camp. Auschwitz 3- Monowitz was a labour camp for a nearby IG Farben factory. I don't mean to harsh your buzz with all these facts, by the way. I just find this stuff fascinating, if almost unbearably sad and grim.

Anyway, it looks as if Saul, a good-looking man in his thirties who's obviously been to hell and back judging by the blank, sort of lost expression on his face and in his eyes, was most likely an inmate of Auschwitz 2- Birkenau.

From early 1942 until late 1944, prisoners from all over Europe were transported here by train and gassed to death upon arrival by the pesticide Zyklon B. After the war ended, some suppliers of this pesticide were executed for knowingly selling it to be used on human beings.

We all know the statistic that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Over one million of these died at Auschwitz. Those who weren't immediately gassed to death frequently died of other things, like starvation, infectious diseases, being experimented on medically (the camp was the workplace of infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele), forced labour in appalling conditions or individual executions by shooting or hanging. The place seems to deserve its terrible reputation.

It wasn't only Jewish people who suffered in this living hell. Thousands of Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies and anyone deemed to be a 'deviant' of some sort or an enemy of the Third Reich were sent here also, intended either as slave labour or for execution.

This camp, possibly the most crucial location for the carrying out of Hitler's 'Final Solution Of The Jewish Question' as laid down by the notorious Wannsee Conference of 1942, is where Saul has been unlucky enough to find himself, and at the height of the 'killing season,' as it were, for Hungarian Jews. He's there alone, it seems. He's evidently a man who doesn't say much or give much away. Maybe he's still in shock from the horrific change in his circumstances.

He's a member of the Sonderkommando, a very special sector of the camp who must perform possibly the worst and most soul-destroying tasks in the whole of Auschwitz. For doing this, they get slightly better food and living conditions, but not for long. And there's the rub...

The Sonderkommando are prisoners themselves. Their job is to assist the Nazi death machinery by seeing to the gassing of new inmates in the camp and then the disposal of their bodies. This is all done under the supervision of SS personnel, but the Sonderkommando undoubtedly have the muckiest end of the stick.

They usher the prisoners to the gas chambers, fooling them the whole time into thinking they're just going to take a shower, after which they'll be given a 'hot meal' and assigned a 'work detail.' They get the prisoners to undress completely and go inside the gas chambers, after which all pretence ceases. The iron doors are slammed shut and pellets of Zyklon B are released into the chamber.

After about twenty minutes, all sound from within the chamber ceases. The Sonderkommando enter the chamber, all wearing masks to guard against any lingering traces of gas, and begin the work of disposing of the bodies in the crematoria's giant ovens. When the ovens were full or out of order, they burned or buried the bodies in pits.

They also have to clean the chamber and go through the prisoners' belongings and bodies for things like any jewellery, spectacles, gold fillings or anything at all which might be of monetary value to the Nazi cause. Getting to steal the odd bauble or trinket and use it for barter is one of the 'perks' of this terrible job.

The film gives the viewer an accurate portrayal of these tasks as performed by Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando colleagues, although it's not heavy-handed about it and there are no gratuitous horrors on display. That's quite a feat of film-making, that is!

Rather, SON OF SAUL captures exactly the dreary, horrible nightmarish drudgery of the job these incarcerated Jews have to perform before themselves being gassed, which is what happened to each Sonderkommando member after they'd been doing the job for a few weeks.

They knew the deepest, darkest dirtiest secrets of the camp, didn't they? Sooner or later, the SS would order them killed and a new bunch of Sonderkommando would be initiated into the camp's gruesome 'mysteries.'

Time is nearly up for the current Sonderkommando when we, the viewers, come in. The clock is ticking and there are usually no reprieves. Almost no Sonderkommando survived the liberation of Auschwitz when the war ended in 1945...

The film also gives a true-to-life portrayal of resistance efforts amongst the prisoners, some of whom want to smuggle photographs they've taken of the horrors of the camp to the outside world and some of whom just plain want to stage a physical attack on the hated SS, for which they'd need weapons and much planning.

We do know that a revolt was staged by prisoners and Sonderkommando members in Auschwitz 2- Birkenau in late 1944 and one of the crematoria was destroyed as a result. That was about all that was achieved, however, as the SS took a brutal revenge on the instigators of the uprising and anyone else they considered to be involved.

Saul gets caught up in one of these highly dangerous resistance attempts but his heart isn't in it. That's because he has something altogether different on his mind. During the course of his 'work' in the gas chambers, he's found the body of a young boy he believes to be his son, his son 'not from his wife,' so maybe the boy is the result of an extra-marital affair or a previous relationship.

He won't permit the boy's body to be thrown in the ovens. He secretes it, at huge risk to himself and his fellow prisoners, until he can find a rabbi in the camp to give the boy a 'proper Jewish burial.' No-one around him can convince him that his plan isn't tantamount to committing suicide. Saul's mind is made up...

This is just such a good film, a magnificent blend of atmosphere, fact, drama and tension. I missed it when it came out in the cinema a while back, but it's out now on DVD courtesy of CURZON ARTIFICIAL EYE and it's well worth a watch if you can handle the subject matter.

There are some extra features in there as well and English subtitles for a film that contains no less than nine spoken languages. This is because the director wanted the actors to all speak in their own languages, just as the prisoners would have done. Auschwitz was, amongst other things, an international community and the babble of different languages must have been awesome to behold.

SON OF SAUL, the Hungarian director's debut feature film, is an authentic, thoughtful movie that's won more awards than I could even list here, including the Oscar for BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM. If you haven't seen it already, you really should try to see it now. After all, I always think it's better to be late to the party than never to make it at all...!


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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