No matter what privileges they give you, the enemy is still the enemy, an adage at the heart of Holocaust drama Son of Saul, whose protagonist must figure out how to use a benefit bestowed by his oppressor to create a personal testimony to goodness before he dies.
Directed by Hungarian László Nemes, the movie centers on Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a Jewish locksmith who is now a prisoner in one of Auschwitz’s satellite concentration camps. Instead of being quickly dispatched to the gas chamber himself, Saul has been made a Sonderkommando – he’s part of a daunting work detail, which gives him a temporary reprieve from death – who gets rid of the murdered corpses and often loots the victims’ clothes for valuables.
One day, going about his gruesome task, he hears a sound coming from the pile of bodies. A higher up quickly suffocates this teenage boy who had managed to briefly cheat death. Saul is bereft over the incident, and proclaims that the child is his titular biological son. He also commits to finding a Jewish rabbi among the prisoners to recite Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, and conduct a proper burial for the boy.
A hallmark of the film is the rough, factory-like efficiency of movement of these Sonderkommandos and minimal human speech. All one seems to hear is the a maelstrom of background noise that ranges from helpful conversations with the newly arriving Jews to the death cries of these same prisoners not long afterwards. It’s hardly an environment conducive to Saul’s subversive and passionate personal agenda. What makes his plan especially foolhardy is that his stealth inquiries risk toppling the other Sonderkommandos’ long-planned mission to blow up the camp.
The emotional center of Son of Saul, which becomes a thriller as it heads towards conclusion, is the father-son archetype. Taskmaster Saturn, who demands those who serve the mythic father either play by the rules or be punished, is the head of the camp. Saturn also fuels Saul’s personal code: the conscience that impels him to take care of a dead boy because that act defines him. Somehow Saul’s higher power manages to operate even within the confines of his larger physical prison.
Saul makes it clear that the boy he’s trying to bury and risk his life for – a fellow Sonderkommando disapprovingly tells Saul, “You failed the living for the dead” – has not been sired through his marriage. However, legacy, which becomes a haunting concern as one reviews a life that’s soon to end, is meaningful and redemptive for people who want to protect those destined, at least in spirit, to follow them.
Archetype: Father. Son. Prisoner.
Astrology Archetype: ♄ (Saturn)