Son of Saul

Magnificent, disturbing films like Son of Saul remind all of us of who we are and how we got here.

Son of SaulSon of Saul is not an easy movie to watch. Though a great film that I predict will win an Oscar this year in the Foreign Film category, it challenges you to embrace the horror that took place in Nazi extermination camps during World War II. Yes, you know what’s coming, but you still shake your head with a combination of grief, horror and disgust.

László Nemes’ film takes place in Auschwitz in 1944.  At that time the Nazis were orchestrating the killing of thousands of Jews a day in gas chambers after which their bodies were burned in a crematorium. Leaving you emotionally paralyzed at times, you are left wondering how the German people tolerated it.

The film follows the horrifying daily life of Saul (Géza Röhrig), serving as a Sonderkommando at the camp. With the camera staying focused close to his face in nearly every scene, the Sonderkommandos were Jewish inmates who were used to escort new arrivals from their railway boxcars into the gas chamber. Leading these poor people, many of whom were families, to believe that they were simply required to take a needed shower, they were then forced to strip and hang their clothes on a designated hook. Before entering the chamber, they were told to remember their hook number so that they could reclaim them after their “shower”.

As hard as it is to contemplate, the Sonderkommandos were initially ordered to search all the clothing for coins and jewelry as they listened to the agonizing screams emanating from the chamber. Thereafter, they dragged the dead bodies to the entrance of the ovens. Adding to their unending nightmare, they had get on their hands and knees and clean the horrific mess left by the dead so that the facility could greet the next group of victims.

You know from the beginning of the film that Sonderkommandos usually lasted no more than several months before they met their own fate. They were robbed of their dignity while being forced to perform hideous tasks with no emotion.

While some of Saul’s Sonderkommando colleagues were planning a revolt, he spent his time trying to save a young boy’s corpse from the ovens so that he could be given the dignity of a burial. Life for Saul became defined by death.

Like many students of history, I long felt that I owed it to the millions of Jews who died at the hands of Hitler, Himmler and Eichmann to revisit their agony. It began long ago with the small book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. It was a book that he dedicated to the memory of his parents and his little sister, Tzipora. While nearly everyone recognizes the saga of Anne Frank, I would recommend that you read “Mila 18″ by Leon Uris. This is the moving, tragic story of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto that was eventually leveled by German troops.

I don’t mean to bore you, but you should also hunt down “Treblinka”, a story concerning a number of Jews who revolted and destroyed a portion of a Nazi death camp. A larger work is entitled “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a challenging book that explores the ugly reality that numerous Germans participated in the Holocaust although they had no direct involvement with the Gestapo or SS troops.

Finally, I would urge you to read the recent book by Jay Winik entitled “1944″. In it, Mr. Winik revisits that important year and the unfortunate reality that Western allies, including the United States, did little to destroy the death camps or access to them even though they gradually became aware of their horrible existence. Mr. Winik tells the story of two Jewish inmates at Auschwitz who successfully executed a harrowing escape. Against all conceivable odds they ended up reaching Switzerland, and their story resembles the experience of Saul. Yet nearly every major world leader read their story and responded with a shrug of their collective shoulders.

Several films have dealt with the Holocaust ranging from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) to last year’s Labyrinth of Lies. Though The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) was a bit contrived at the end, Charlotte Rampling’s The Night Porter (1974) is as disturbing as any film you are likely to see on this subject.

In 1974 one of my brothers and I went on a three-week trip to Europe with a Eurorail pass and the book entitled “Europe on $10 a Day”. Our only real plan was to attend the Oktoberfest in Munich, and we spent a day taking a side trip to visit the Dresden extermination camp.

As we got off the train in Dresden, I looked around for directions and finally asked a middle-aged man, “Can you tell me how we get to the extermination camp?” He looked at both of us with disgust, pointed quickly down a road, and then hurried away.

As we sat in a bar after leaving the camp, we decided that it was perfectly appropriate for this individual and other residents to daily face tourists like ourselves where they were asked for directions to a facility that they would otherwise like to forget. After all, their immediate ancestors had to know from the smoke and smell covering their countryside that something monstrous was taking place in the nearby camp where trainloads of Jewish families were unloaded daily.

As we all know, genocide has taken place at various times throughout world history. Recently, Armenians suffered a similar fate around World War I as did thousands of villagers in Rwanda. Additionally, think of what occurred recently in Cambodia, a country I just visited.

I must admit that as I watched Saul escort numerous families to their death as they left crowded boxcars, I couldn’t help but think of what Americans would do if Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio became President. If they followed their promise to deport over 10 million Hispanic residents of our country, do you suppose that they would use boxcars to ship them to Mexico and South America? Would we silently stand by and do nothing as the overwhelmingly Christian nation of Germany did?