The few, the proud, the brave--yes, I am one of the few who have actually viewed Son of Saul, the film that will probably win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature.
This film has a thin plot stretched to cover endless footage of naked dead bodies and piles of cremated dust and bone.
In many scenes we see two people in conversation in the foreground, while the background shows "Stucken" ("pieces"--actually naked corpses) lying on the floor or being moved into the incinerator.
The characters are members of the Sonderkommando--Special Forces--of Jewish prisoners forced to handle the herding of newly arrived Jewish people into gas chambers, then to clean out the dead bodies, burn them, and transport the ashes as well as the clothing and suitcases left behind by those killed.
1) My first reaction to the film was revulsion and a question: why didn't these Sonderkommando just walk into the death chambers themselves rather than participate in the killing of fellow Jews?
I learned the answer: these men had hope that they might escape, that they might be part of an uprising to free all, that they might be able to document the killing with photos and smuggle them out to the wider world, that the Soviets might arrive in Poland in time to free them...
Even in the most dire of circumstances, there is hope.
2) My second reaction was repugnance for the German language, one I learned in college and have loved for its beauty and for its history as the source of English.
After watching twenty minutes or more of this film, however, understanding everything said in German, I wished that I hadn't learned this language. It was dirtied by use in these killing camps; I didn't think about that before.
Words like "Javohl" ("Yes"--answered in roll call), "Meine Herren" ("Gentlemen"), "Herr Oberfuhrer" (Sir Over-Leader") just seemed permanently stained--not to mention "Die Heimat" ("the homeland").
Could we please stop talking about Homeland Security in the US? This filthy term comes straight out of Nazi Germany and should not be used in the US, especially not as an excuse for discrimination against people whose nationality may make us think they are possible terrorists.
3) When the color green first appeared in the film--while the characters are riding a truck to shovel ashes into a river--it had a deep effect on me. The only colors so far had been grey, black, dark green, brown, etc. Filmgoers are deprived of most of the color palette, as were the prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
4) I got through the film okay but later woke up at 3 am and couldn't go back to sleep for two hours. Scenes and questions from the film filled my mind.
5) My Hebrew teacher at the American Jewish University on Mulholland, whose parents are both survivors of concentration camps, had a much worse reaction to the film than I did. For her the subject was very close to home.
She said it was different from every other Holocaust film she had seen. Now I know how it was different: it showed people being told to undress, hang up their clothes, and take a shower "before hot soup" or "hot tea"--the lies varied.
Then the audience hears pounding on doors of the gas chambers as the victims of all ages realized they were being killed. Then naked dead bodies are shown as the background in scene after scene.
The horror is inescapable.
6) The plot is whether the central group (whom we have come to know) will escape before they are slaughtered; the Sonderkommando were killed and replaced every few months.
7) The other plot concerns whether the central character, Saul Auslander (Saul Foreigner or Saul Alien) will be able to provide decent last rites (the saying of the Kaddish) for one boy of maybe twelve years who was still alive and gasping for breath when removed from the gas chamber.
Saul spends most of the film searching for a rabbi who will do this. Early on he speaks the first few words of the Kaddish to a rabbi while asking "Will you say the Kaddish? The Baruch atah Adonai..." but the rabbi hushes him with a hand over his mouth before he can complete the word Adonai.
The message: it is sacrilegious even to speak the name of the Blessed Creator in this setting.
Juxtaposition of the Kaddish prayer and the horror of the gas chambers is a powerful tool in the film.
Yes, Son of Saul deserves to win the Oscar.
Here's the most interesting quote in the film. Someone criticizes Saul for endangering other lives in search of a rabbi to say the Kaddish over one dead boy: "You fail the living to serve the dead."
Burial rites are one of the earliest signs distinguishing the genus Homo from previous primates. By insisting on a decent burial for at least one victim of the Nazi murders, Saul is demonstrating his own humanity and that of the boy and of all those forced into camps.
I liked Ixcanul Volcano (about a forced marriage in Guatemala), but it was not even nominated for best foreign film. I liked Mustang, the Turkish film about five young women trapped as fundamentalism and an oppressive uncle takes over their home.
But I believe the Oscar should go to Son of Saul.
See this review in The Independent, a London-based newspaper:
On Ixcanul, see: