(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont, Jerzy Walczak, Gergö Farkas, Balázs Farkas, Sándor Zsórér, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Orbán, Kamil Dobrowolski, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Attila Fritz, Mihály Kormos, Márton Ȧgh, Amitai Kedar, István Pion, Juli Jakab. Directed by László Nemes
When we think of the Holocaust, it is truly hard to wrap our minds around it. The absolute ghastly nature of it; essentially Nazi Germany created death factories in which living people were brutally and efficiently processed into corpses, then those corpses disposed of. The horror of it fails to penetrate our skulls because we simply can’t conceive of it, even when we see pictures and newsreel footage. Our minds won’t let us.
But it did happen and perhaps one of the more astonishing things is that the Nazis had help in the orderly disposal of the Jews – from the Jews themselves. The sonderkommandos were tasked with cleaning the physical mess left behind by the dying, scrubbing the gas chambers to remove the bloodstains made from bloodied fists beating against the iron doors in vain trying to escape, as well as the excrete of a human body in extremis. They are the ones that process the clothes and take them for sorting, act as cowboys herding the masses of those getting off the train at Auschwitz into the waiting chambers. They are the ones who drag the corpses – now called pieces by the German guards – to the ovens, or out to mass graves. They dispose of the ashes when the ovens get full. And their service buys them only a few months before they are herded into chambers of their own.
Saul Auslander (Röhrig) is just such a man. He walks with a purpose, his visage grim and unsmiling, revealing nothing of what is occurring inside while he does his grim and grisly work. He cares for no-one and nothing; he aids the resistance somewhat, reluctantly agreeing to fight although he says very little about it. His life is a perpetual tunnel vision of task and survival, even if it is only for a few short weeks. Perhaps the war will end before the Nazis get a chance to kill him.
Then he sees a young boy who survives the chamber – barely. German doctors are called in to see the boy, still breathing, lying on a slab. Then they suffocate him. Something inside Saul snaps. He determines to see that this boy, who fought so valiantly to survive, gets a proper Jewish burial with the rites of kadish read by a rabbi. He even claims him as his son, which he may or may not be.
However, there aren’t many rabbis left and those that are aren’t likely to advertise their rabbinical status. Finding one in the hordes of the doomed coming in is highly unlikely. Hiding the body of the boy amid the chaos and paranoia of Nazis and prisoners alike, improbable. Getting both the body and the rabbi outside of the camp for the burial is nigh-on impossible.
The opening shot, shown from Saul’s point of view as chaos comes in and out of focus as he herds new arrivals towards the waiting gas chambers, shows that this is going to be a different and excellent film. Everything outside of what is immediate to Saul is blurred, as if seen through tunnel vision. The style reminds one strongly of the Dardennes brothers who employ a similar technique.
The entire film in fact is shot this way, which is a double edged sword. It allows us to see Saul’s perspective which is very much on immediate survival, and excludes anything beyond that narrow focus. Saul’s world is by necessity a small one, limited to the task at hand of the moment and of avoiding the indiscriminate wrath of Nazi soldiers who aren’t above executing him for a minor infraction.
However, as someone who is prone to vertigo, the whirling camera rapidly goes from being an innovation to an annoyance to being downright disruptive. I found myself unable to look at the screen because I was getting way too dizzy. That kind of defeats the purpose of a movie; how are we to make sense of the images when we can’t see them?
That’s not a minor quibble, but it really is the only one. Everything else about the movie is simply awe-inspiring, from the strong, internalized performance by Röhrig that reveals little about what’s inside of Saul as it in fact tells us everything we need to do. Who is this boy to Saul? Is it his son, as he claims? A representation of the son he lost? Or is he a symbol standing for all the Jews who the Holocaust has taken?
These questions are at the center of the film and they are not easily answered. Saul himself is an enigmatic character who defies us to get to know him even as he gives us nothing to hold onto. For Nemes, he orchestrates this narrative masterfully, telling us a grim and dark story from a brand new perspective, one which we as a cinematic audience have never experienced before. For that alone, the movie richly deserves the Oscar it won last month for Best Foreign Language Film.
This is, simply put, a must-see film. Some audience members, particularly Jewish ones who have family members who were victims of the Holocaust, are going to find this hard to watch. I did, although mainly because my vertigo made me look away more than the stark and often gruesome images. Still, it is worth us to remind us that the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man is nearly boundless, a lesson we still haven’t learned more than 70 years later.
REASONS TO GO: Searing and emotionally powerful material. Röhrig delivers an amazing performance. Innovative camera style.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky cam caused legitimate dizziness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and cruelty as well as a lot of graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is supposed to be from Saul’s perspective only; we never see anything that isn’t within his field of view or hear anything that isn’t within his range of hearing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gods of Egypt