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Saturday, April 23

Son of Saul or clinging to our humanity with both hands

I always come back to Tolstoy's saying about great literature inspired by a man going on a journey and a stranger coming to town. And it reads quite safely and reasonably because it makes you think of the joys of traveling, as a path to self-knowledge or the mysterious aura of the stranger that brings a bout of fresh air in a god-forsaken place or life. But what if the man takes the journey into himself because the stranger has come and disrupted his existence and deprived him of a chance to stay alive? Then, we have a great movie called Son of Saul that makes us shatter at the lack of boundaries of human imagination and the unmatched ability to tell the same painful truth again and again, without rendering it less important. 




This particular piece of truth refers to the drama of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II. He is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of the so-called privileged prisoners who, in exchange for better living conditions and more food, burn the bodies of the dead. And they do it silently, quickly, efficiently, knowing that every two months, they will be disposed of and replaced with a new batch. Some of them choose to fight back and prepare for the right time to attack the Nazi soldiers. Others, like the Hungarian Jewish doctor, performing experiments on the prisoners to save his own life, have turned their skills into a indispensable craft. Saul finds a moaning kid in the pile of 'pieces' he is supposed to help put into the ovens, and claims him to be his son. Then, he gives up his duties and starts looking for a rabbi to perform the Kaddish prayer of mourning. 

The movie breathes into your face, like a disturbing fly that would not go away. In fact, it feels as if the mother of all flies itself has been buzzing into your ears, slowly getting inside your head and guiding you through the story. It must be a fly, for it gets you close to the stench of bodies, and past the abundance of decay and crawling on the walls of burning ovens. If the fly image is not relevant, then perhaps you should imagine climbing the back of another human being- meager, always hungry and thirsty, abused, exhausted, alone, desperate, frightened, humiliated, constantly facing death in the eye. The director Laszlo Nemes makes us Saul's invisible shadow, a kind of shared burden-  his to carry around and ours to bear. He avoids imbuing the story with very disturbing images and sounds and leaves almost everything to our imagination. The horror is slowly unfolding inside our heads and it is for us to decide how much we are willing to put up with or what we choose to believe. Abraham, another prisoner, tells Saul he has forsaken the living for the dead and that he does not even have a son. In his own words, he is telling him hope is a dangerous thing in a concentration camp and if an inmate chooses to fight for something, it should be against the oppressors, let alone a dream. 

To my mind, Saul's natural or fictitious son is nothing but an excuse to find purpose. Under extraordinary circumstances, the human mind resorts to all sort of artifices to cling to the last shred of humanity. Saul aka Geza Rohrig is looking for a symbol of the normality before Auschwitz when his life had meaning and there were things in his care. He holds himself responsible for the boy's safe passage into the kingdom of a lord in the name of whom he has been judged, marked, and sentenced to death. He still loves this maker of lives and beings and he chooses his own battle- the silent, dangerous pursue of a duty that lies above himself. He fails but the image of the Polish boy in the woods is worth a smile and the inescapable end. 

The movie goes beyond meaning and characters and it renders an effective narrative with no drama display or special effects. Saul's character speaks little in a faint voice but his face, gestures and movements express his inner battle. It is as if he walked the premises of the camp naked of clothes and feelings, of hope and cruelty, of routine or fear. And maybe the message of the movie is not about holding on to our humanity but to our faith, the kind of belief in our souls,in whatever there is that defines and shapes us while walking through Hell. 

In an accumulation of small unsettling details, Son of Saul makes us uncomfortable with ourselves, challenges our parenthood and sense of duty and two hours later, we come to realize we have lost some weight. Or have become lightweight. 
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