Almost a year ago Son of Saul made its debut at Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prix du Jury, and its astonishing impact was immediately apparent. Since then it won an Oscar and a Golden Globe and many more on the international film festival circuit.
Son of Saul is the first feature-length movie made by László Nemes, a 39-year-old Hungarian director. The film is set in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944, where Hungarian Jewish prisoner Saul works as a member of the Sonderkommando - someone who carries the bodies from the gas chambers to pyres in exchange for minor increases in food ration. They alone –out of all the arrivals at the camp- knew that death was coming for them. One day Saul discovers the body of a child he thinks is his son, and from that moment his mission is to give the boy a dignified Jewish burial.
As someone with Holocaust survivors in their family, I thought that this film would leave me in tears – I heard their harrowing and extraordinary stories, but it is completely different when you actually see it.
However, Son of Saul did not leave me weeping, but utterly numb.
The film turned out a masterpiece without using any soundtrack or fully depicting the horrors of the camp. The camera stays in a tight close-up almost throughout, focusing on the face and movements of Saul; the background is blurred, but the audience is still aware of the horror that is happening around him. The only sound is the noises of the camp – prisoners screaming and banging on the door of the gas chamber, the scraping of shovels.
The unique style plays a part in telling something new about the story that has already been filmed countless times. After Cannes there have been much discussion about whether we needed ‘yet another’ Holocaust movie but when you watch Son of Saul, you realize that the main subject is not the Holocaust itself. Nemes said "This is about Saul's struggle to remain human when there is no more humanity. That's my question for audiences: is it possible to still have a voice within you, an inner God, in the middle of hell?"
The film has put Hungary on Hollywood’s map, and it is probably the most successful Hungarian film of recent times. For that reason I was truly shocked, when I read Hungarian people’s appalling comments about such a terrific national achievement.
That’s the thing: they don’t regard this a Hungarian success but ‘a Jewish one’. Some of them call it ‘Jewish propaganda’ and -going even further- a creation ‘based upon the lie that they call Holocaust”. A recent poll showed that one third of Hungarians are anti-Semitic and the third most popular political party admittedly holds those beliefs.
For me these comments not only show stupidity and despicability but the fact that Hungary still hasn’t come to terms with the Holocaust and hasn’t accepted that we were a part of it. They demonstrate that anti-Semitism in Hungary was not only a 20th century phenomenon but it is still there in the depths of the Hungarian society as well as in our politics.
I could only hope that this ‘phenomenon’ will eventually fade and people will understand that the Holocaust is about all of us.
As László Nemes put it: “if you don’t understand the destruction of the Jews and the European tradition, you don’t understand the suicide of modern Europe. If you don’t understand what it meant for Europe to kill the Jews, you don’t understand the evil at work within European civilisation. It’s still looming.”