Son of Saul Review
I was fortunate to finally be able to see Son of Saul yesterday. This is the second film to be released to specifically focus on the Sonderkommando and its members in Birkenau. This movie is shot in 35 mm film and gives one a vintage feel. Many parts of the film are blurry. I am not sure if this is an artistic nuance or to protect the viewer from rather horrible scenes showing corpses, nudity, the ovens and the exterior of what we come to learn is Crematorium III. One almost feels as though they are seeing the world of Birkenau through the eyes of a Sonderkommando member who had his eyeglasses confiscated upon arrival by the SS.
As one watches Saul and the Sonderkommando members go about their daily duties we feel hurried and never get to rest. This in fact did happen. All prisoners were forced to do their tasks at double time and earned very few breaks.
The costuming authenticity of both the Sonderkommano prisoners and the SS was authentic and correct. Saul wears a yellow triangle marking him as a Mischlinge or a half German and half Jew. I have only seen this triangle portrayed in the movie, "In Darkness." It is relatively unknown. The researchers and costumers were intricate in the portrayal of this and other details. Saul's last name is Ausländer which translates to foreigners in German. He was a Hungarian Mischlinge. This was probably meant to be ironic to those who know German. I immediately knew this when I heard his last name.
Historically speaking this film tries to put every major Sonderkommando event and well known mass murder near and on the date of the Sonderkommando rebellion, October 07, 1944. I know only those well versed in the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau and specifically the Sonderkommando will notice this. The Sonderkommando and crematoria in Birkenau existed from mid 1943 (March until June when the four huge crematoria were completed) to late 1944 (before the impending retreat from the camp in the wake of the advance of the Red Army).
Saul works in Crematorium III as can be deduced from conversations between Saul and fellow prisoners. He is asked to participate in the Sonderkommando revolt. It is mentioned that the Sonderkommando in Crematorium II probably will not participate. He is asked to collect gold, coins and jewelry to fund the revolt. We also see that the undressing room and gas chambers are underground. We see the elevator that took corpses to the main floor where five triple muffle ovens were. We never see the exterior of Crematorium III but we see a Bauleitung (construction office) blueprint of it.
In reality the Sonderkommando members in Crematorium II (Squad 57B) begin to participate in the revolt when they see the flames and hear the shooting from Crematorium IV (where the revolt was started by Squad 59B). The Sonderkommando members of Crematorium III never participated in the revolt as they were not informed about the revolt or the SS men brought the situation under control before it started.
Saul is presumably compared to Zalmen Gradowski, one of the prolific authors of the diaries and notes buried by Sonderkommando members near Crematorium III and discovered between 1945 and 1970. One of Saul’s fellow prisoners threatens to tattle on him to the SS about the diaries he has buried near the Crematorium III grounds. He also is caught up with the members of Squad 57B who flee after the revolt into the woods and ultimately to a barn near Rajsko. They are pursued by the SS and shot there. Gradowski did these things so obviously Saul is based upon Zalmen Gradowski.
In one scene we see Saul and his fellow prisoners being informed that they, who work on the dayshift, must work all night with the nightshift to help cremate the corpses of 1,000 prisoners from the Theresienstadt Family Camp which had existed since the deportation of many Jews from the Theresienstadt Ghetto to Birkenau in September 1943. They were murdered two times during the evening, on 03/08/1944 and from July 10 to July 12, 1944. They were murdered in secrecy during the night. The Roma prisoners from the Gypsy Birkeanu camp were also murdered in the same manner on August 02,1944.
The main plot of the film is Saul trying to give his son a proper burial. His son survives a gassing and is murdered by the SS after it was discovered he survived. This is eerily similar to the subplot in ‘The Grey Zone” in which a young girl survives a gassing which is described by Filip Muller, a Sonderkommando member in his memoirs. I have never read of a young boy surviving a gassing so artistic license was obviously taken with this main plot of the film. Saul tries to achieve his goal and find a rabbi to recite Kaddish when he buries his son.
In one scene we see Miklos Nyiszli who is never named inform Saul that his son will be kept in Mengele’s autopsy room. Nyiszli, who was a prisoner pathologist who worked for Mengele in Crematorium II and who was a doctor to the Sonderkommando wrote of his experiences in “Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account.” The movie shows Mengele’s autopsy room being in Crematorium III not Crematorium II where in fact it really existed.
We see burning pits near Crematorium V in one scene when Saul is searching for a rabbi among newly arrived deportees sentenced to death. The deportees are being herded to the pits, forced to strip and shot in the back of the head before they fall into the flames. This was an atrocity committed against the Hungarian Jews in the late Spring/early Summer of 1944. Moll, one of the most sadistic of the Auschwitz and SS and chief of the Birkenau crematoria, participated in that atrocity. He was fond of shooting young women with a small caliber pistol which did not kill them, thus ensuring that they fell alive into the flames. He is not portrayed in Son of Saul.
By October 1944 the number of incoming transports had decreased and the use of the pits had stopped. They were only used during the Hungarian mass murders as the crematoria could not cope with the sheer numbers of people murdered. Crematorium IV also had a defective chimney and lining from the time its construction was completed. We see the SS using flame throwers in the scene of the burning pits. This was never done. Wood was used to start the fires and fat from burning corpses was used to keep the fire going to continue the cremation of other corpses.
Saul is also tasked with buying the explosives from Ella in Kanada, the warehouses used to store the belongings of those who had been murdered. Ella was presumably based upon Ella Gartner, one of the four women who helped supply the Sonderkommando in Crematorium IV with explosives to use in their revolt. Ella wasn’t working in Kanada before the revolt. She had been transferred to the Unionwerke, an ammunitions factory, where she met Roza Robota and was joined the effort to help the Sonderkommando plan their revolt. The gunpowder was smuggled out and hidden with bodies taken to Crematorium IV. None of the Sonderkommando members ever went to Kanada to pay for or pick up explosives to use in the revolt.
Ultimately the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion and we see what happens to the body of Saul’s son. In spite of the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies I still loved this movie and think it was beautifully acted and produced. I will watch documentaries for correct historical facts. I don’t watch movies to see historical facts portrayed as they happened but to follow an interesting and touching plot. Watching Saul struggle to find his rabbi and bury his son makes this movie worth watching not one time but many times.