The project’s place in the canon of Holocaust movies begins with its backstory. Nemes, himself the descendant of Shoah victims, discovered a French publication of actual testimonies buried at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Sonderkommando—primarily Jewish prisoners whom the Nazis conscripted to usher their brethren into the gas chambers and crematoria. Disappointed with existing methods and angry about what he considered Europe’s unsatisfying response to the Holocaust, Nemes created a film within narrow parameters focused on the portrayal of one man’s surreal reality in Auschwitz.
As part of the Sonderkommando, Saul (Röhrig) is forced to lead prisoners into the fictitious showers of the gas chambers. With an over-the-shoulder view of Saul’s seemingly endless assignments, extended shots of his often silent face, largely blurred backgrounds, and an immersive wall of sound, Nemes creates a claustrophobic hell. Unlike countless other Holocaust films, there is no savior here, no hero who comes to the rescue. There are only victims trapped in the killing zone.
Saul’s moral dilemma—to participate in the murder machine or join its victims—is a foregone conclusion. Because the Sonderkommando were summarily executed to remove evidence of Nazi atrocities, his own demise is simply a matter of time. But when Saul finds a boy he believes is his own son, and insists on giving him a proper burial, his humanity awakens.
By focusing on one person’s experience, Son of Saul conveys the infinite sense of loss through the finite. Instead of an incomprehensible six million fatalities beyond human understanding, Saul is relatable—even in this madness. And because his fate is doomed, his actions speak for the two of every three European Jews who were murdered. (The lost include my grandparents, two of their children, and countless relatives whose identities I have struggled to identify through decades of genealogical research.)
With its realism, Son of Saul provides insight into the plight of survivors, including my recently deceased father—whom the Nazis forced to dig mass graves as an orphaned teenager. After consuming endless books and movies, conducting interviews with him, and completing a graduate program at Hebrew University, the film still helped me more deeply understand the weight of what my father carried through almost seven post-war decades. As Röhrig, another descendant of victims, says, “First you must survive. Then you must survive survival.” Son of Saul depicts Jews forced into what the Nazis described at Nuremberg as an unparalleled form of torture—forced participation in the annihilation of your own people.
When it comes to exploring the dark side of humanity, there’s no taking for granted that any one picture will offer the last word. “Every few years there is a film that comes out that ... inspires people to look at the Holocaust again with fresh eyes,” says Rick Trank, the Oscar-winning writer and director, whose 15 feature documentaries include 10 relating to the Holocaust. But it took a while for filmmakers to see the artistic potential in the tragedy: It wasn’t until 14 years after liberation, that the Academy put a Holocaust-era feature into the spotlight when it named Shelley Winters Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Diary of Anne Frank.