In this searing drama, Saul, a concentration-camp prisoner responsible for burning the dead, discovers the body of his young son and must choose between participating in the uprising planned by fellow inmates, or ensure a proper Jewish burial for his child. Saul, played by the 48-year-old Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, has been placed in the Sonderkommando.
The prisoners positioned in Sonderkommando’s work units enjoy minor, temporary privileges in return for policing the extermination of their own, removing and disposing their dead bodies. Leading the bewildered newcomers from the trains up to the very doors of the gas chambers, they perform a crucial role in this theatre of horror with their reassuring lies of the gas chambers being showers. With staggering audacity, Son of Saul begins with something other Holocaust movies would hardly dare to approach – the gas chamber. This is where Saul discovers the body of a boy, whom he believes to be his son and sets out to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give him a proper burial. He has to do this in a series of furtive, enigmatic whispers with prisoners who are trying to concentrate on a planned uprising, using what they call “shiny” as bribes for information and material: valuables taken at enormous risk from the bodies of the dead. The camera stays in a tight closeup almost throughout, with a shallow focus on Saul’s haggard face, scorched and stripped of human emotion. The horrendous reality of everything else – bodies, uniforms, vehicles, muzzle flashes – is glimpsed on edge, often out of focus. This evil cannot be directly looked at.