Son of Saul: “You are not in Inglourious Basterds. This is the real deal.”

My experience of László Nemes's debut feature, Son of Saul, was very intense and confusing. My emotions went this way and that—horror to a deep state of sadness to anger. And then I would swell with guilt about this angry feeling. And then I would become angry about this feeling of guilt. And then another scene would sink me into sadness again. Altogether, I rate Son of Saul as one of the few masterpieces of 21st-century cinema.

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Set in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the film opens near the end of World War II. The Russians are coming, and the Nazis are killing more and more Jews. In the middle of all of this is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jew from Hungary who is a Sonderkommando—Jewish laborers in the Nazi's death factory. They herd their own kind off the train and into a room, they watch them undress, they lock them up in a chamber, have them gassed, pull out the corpses, clean the floors, burn the bodies, and shovel the ashes into a river. The payment they get for this bleak work is their bare life.

The camera is always close to Saul, who has a blank expression and the deadest eyes. He can no longer see the death and misery around him. He pulls lifeless legs as if they were sacks of potatoes. He is deaf to the screams and the banging in the gas chamber. All he knows is he must just keep going: keep working, keep his distance from the Germans, keep taking valuables from the clothes of the dead, keep scrubbing the walls. There is no past and no future in his world; there is only the eternal present of the living coming in and the dead going out.

For this reason, one grows to hate Saul, to hate him even more than one hates his oppressors. How can someone live under such conditions? Certainly life is not always worth living; there are situations where death is far more desirable, more honorable. To persist like Saul is just to be a brute will. You are life and nothing more. No sunsets, no laughter, no hopes, no imagination whatsoever. You are one with the instincts of insects or crustaceans or any other thing that wants only to persevere in its being.

But then something strange happens to Saul. He suddenly comes alive and wants to do something that will put his life at risk. At this point, the director manages to muddle your feelings for his main character. You move from hating him for wanting to live to hating him for striving to be human. It is not possible to explain Saul's transition (from just being to being in the world) without exposing the whole plot, and so I will only describe in vague terms the confusion it causes.

What the transition makes you realize is that the brute will to live is also in you. Saul is no more a monster than you are. The ugly fact of this was hidden by his cold, pale face and mechanical motions. You saw only him; you could not see anything else. But the moment he decides to do something more than just living, your own will to live is exposed to you. It happens like this: When Saul starts taking big chances for something small and pointless (considering the circumstances), you realize he has gone mad. But how can you go mad in a death camp? Everything is mad to begin with. Right? Right? Once you have these thoughts turning in your head, your view of the first part of the film changes, and your experience of the rest is clouded in emotions that never settle.

This is the film's dark message, one that will trouble you for days after the screening: In a death camp, the will to live is normal and striving to be a human is pure madness.