sat 20/07/2024

Son of Saul | reviews, news & interviews

Son of Saul

Son of Saul

Dead man walking: Hungarian exploration of the closed universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Géza Röhrig as marked man, Saul Auslander

In the world of the concentration camp, clothes or the lack of them sealed your fate. What you wore marked out your role; whether it was the blue-gray Waffen SS uniform, a doctor’s grubby white coat, the striped suits given to slave-workers, or your own clothes from your former life. The first images of Son of Saul are a soft blur of figures in a distant wood, but walking swiftly to camera and into sharp focus is one man, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig). He’s wearing an overcoat with a big red cross on its back, an easy target if he should try to escape. His deep-set eyes bear the expression of a man who has seen too much.

Saul is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando. These were Jewish prisoners who were selected to shepherd new arrivals to the showers, strip their discarded clothes of valuables, listen until their cries stopped and take their naked bodies to the crematoria. To many they were the great deceivers, Jews leading their fellows to death. Primo Levi wrote that the Sonderkommando were "deprived of the solace of being innocent". Yet they were also victims; in Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando members lasted three or four months before being gassed in turn. Saul is a dead man walking. 

The camera follows Saul, often in hand-held close-up, through an imagined 48 hours in an unnamed camp. Our gaze seldom leaves him, and we rarely see the horror that surrounds him in sharp focus. But we hear it all through an immersive soundscape of braking trains, the harsh scrubbing of bodily fluids from floors and walls and the constant babel of languages (German, Greek, Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, Czech).

How does one convey its horrors without indulging in morbid fascination?In making the film, László Nemes drew on two well-documented acts of Sonderkommando rebellion which took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the autumn of 1944. At great risk a series of photographs were taken of naked women being herded and their bodies being burnt. These images are some of the very few from inside any working extermination camp, and were smuggled out of the camp for the Resistance to raise the alarm. A few weeks later other members of the Sonderkommando plotted to blow up a gas chamber with gunpowder, overpower the guards and escape.

To construct his narrative Nemes also used hand-written accounts by several Sonderkommandos that were buried in the grounds near the crematoria and the 1946 memoirs of Dr Miklós Nyiszli, a prisoner-doctor who worked under Josef Mengele. Nyiszli described how a 16-year-old girl was found still breathing under a pile of bodies, and was then killed and autopsied.

Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer have taken these documentary accounts and turned them into the story of one man among the hundreds conscripted into the Sonderkommando. Nemes, Röhrig (a poet and first-time actor), the sound designer Tamás Zányi and the cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (shooting in 35mm film) deserve all the praise that the film has won.

Portraying the Shoah on screen is almost impossible; how does one convey its horrors without indulging in morbid fascination? How does one make sense of the closed universe of the camps, where genocide was an all-consuming mission, even when the Nazis knew the war was lost? Can one make moral judgements about the Sonderkommando, divided by languages, loyalties and facing their own imminent death? Son of Saul’s narrative is ambiguous – we never find out if Saul's quest for religious ritual leads him to "fail the living for the sake of the dead". This is not comfortable viewing, but the film is the better for it.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to Son of Saul





Primo Levi wrote that the Sonderkommando were ‘deprived of the solace of being innocent’


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


A very illuminating reciew but it seems to stop just as it was getting started. I wish you'd written more about the boy and his role. Was he really Saul's son? Why did Saul risk everything to give the boy the Jewish burial rites? 

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters