I’m writing this review fresh off the seat. I am shaken. I should not have watched the film I just watched. And the worst thing is, I knew. I knew when I heard about it, and I was sure when I watched the trailer. And yet, when I saw that a reviewer was needed, I ended up deciding to go. I don’t know why, exactly. Curiosity, perhaps, or the hope that I would be able to watch the film and not let it break me.
“Son of Saul” is a difficult film to watch. You cannot watch it as fiction, because it is not fiction: it is set intentionally and realistically in a Nazi concentration camp and it is based (at least in part) on the Scrolls of Auschwitz, the diaries of Leib Langfus, a rabbi who was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 and who was part of the Sonderkommando (Jews in the concentration camps who were in charge of cutting the hair, collecting the belongings and clearing and burning the bodies of the people who were murdered in the gas chambers. Everything that happens in the film is horrible. The setting makes this a thing to be expected but it doesn’t make watching it any easier.
Technically, the film is well made. It is well paced, it is fantastically well written. On occasion, I would have appreciated a more stable camera (I personally don’t like scenes with a lot of movement where it’s impossible to see what is happening), but at the same time, I am glad that I was spared what I might have seen with a more stable camera. The acting is fantastic. The decision to follow the main character closely, closing up on his face often, showing us what he sees, making us be with him, is executed well.
And yet, I hesitate to say this is a good film. I cannot approve of a film that uses a true, historical event, a genocide of a people done systematically, as a backdrop to fiction. Some may argue that it raises awareness, that without films like this one people would forget about the Holocaust. To those people I say, if you need films like this one to remember, then you have already forgotten. There are the writings of those who were in concentration camps, there is historical film footage taken when the concentration camps were liberated. There are documentaries, such as Shoah, a 1985 documentary by Claude Lanzmann, in which he visits concentration camps in Poland and he interviews survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the Shoah, the Holocaust, to which Son of Saul has been compared. There are documents. We don’t need fiction: with a horror so great, the reality will always surpass any fiction.
So I guess, as a film goer, one question remains. Could I watch this film only as a work of fiction? Could I even begin to understand it if I didn’t already know the story it was telling? Would I have experienced the film differently, perhaps been less horrified, or more, if I didn’t know that everything shown in the film is true to an extent, and that much worse happened? I can’t answer these questions. I think if I could watch it as fiction, I would be losing part of my humanity, that to watch it as fiction would make me alien, that I could not understand this film if I didn’t already know about the Holocaust. The strength of this film is that, at its core, it tells a story that is true and that it is horrible, and that it was caused by humans. Its flaw is that the story it tells is fictional.