Sonderkommando was the Nazi term for an extermination camp prisoner who was forced to help in the hard work of murder.
Routinely, the Sonderkommandos themselves were murdered and new ones took their place. The film “Son of Saul” is about one of those Sonderkommandos, a fictional creation who thinks he comes across his own son among the dead. The movie opens soon. If you see it, you will never forget it.
“Son of Saul” is astonishing. At least twice I was tempted to bolt the screening room. I felt claustrophobic. I felt horror. I felt closer to the Holocaust in this film than I have in any other or, even, in the many books I’ve read. “Son of Saul” won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and it will undoubtedly win many other awards — not, in case you’re wondering, just out of treacly respect for the subject matter and the director’s noble intentions, but because it is a startling work of genius.
For almost all of the movie, the camera stays close on Saul, played by Geza Rohrig. He, like director Laszlo Nemes, are native Hungarians, which is appropriate because the movie ends in 1944 with the arrival at Auschwitz of transports from Hungary. The flood of Hungarian Jews, rounded up by the supremely efficient Adolph Eichmann, necessitated an expansion of the Sonderkommando corps. At one point, over 900 were needed for the gassing, incineration and — when the gas chamber was overwhelmed — mass shootings.
The camera stalks Saul as he goes about his job. In silence, he leads groups of his fellow Jews into the “shower” area. He helps them strip, hang up their clothes on numbered pegs — a voice helpfully tells the condemned to remember the number — and urges them into the gas chamber. The vault-like door is closed. Saul rushes from peg to peg, gathering the clothes. People pound on the door. They scream. Saul shows no emotion. He is already dead.
Afterward, Saul helps dispose of the bodies. From around him we hear sounds, sometimes a bit of chatter. On his periphery, we see bodies. They are called “pieces.” They are grabbed by tongs and loaded into the ovens. One young man survived the gassing and is promptly killed. Saul believes it’s his son. He hides the body. He wants a proper religious burial for the youth. Other Sonderkommandos tell him he has no son. Saul has gone mad. Maybe. The world has gone mad. Certainly.
“Son of Saul” is a marvel of filmmaking. It is also a cinematic breakthrough because it is not about the rare Jew who survived the camps, but about the millions who didn’t. With a handful of exceptions, all Sonderkommandos were murdered. With a handful of exceptions, all Auschwitz prisoners were murdered. Really, everything perished at Auschwitz including, out of necessity, the hideous implications of the place. Among its victims is a belief in a just god.
The grandparents of the thoroughly admirable Germans of today did the killing. They had the help of others, of course, but the Holocaust was their enterprise. Even in the waning days of the war, the Germans kept up the killing, enthralled by Hitler and convinced by the bizarre logic of anti-Semitism that if they didn’t kill the Jews, the Jews would kill them. They stayed at their task until exhaustion and defeat meant they could kill no more.
In his new and excellent book, “The German War,” Oxford University historian Nicholas Stargardt exhumes the letters and diaries of German soldiers and others. He details how a cultured nation went insane, how ordinary soldiers became mass killers and how the churches of Germany looked the other way as the innocent were murdered. For a time, some churchmen protested the Nazis’ euthanasia program for the sick and the mentally disabled, a precursor to the Holocaust that the Germans visited upon themselves. Rebuffed, the clergy shut up.
After the screening, a nice buffet dinner was served. People resumed conversation, their life. The director was present, as well as the actor who played Saul. We talked a bit about the movie. We talked a bit more about other things. As humans, it’s necessary to engage somewhat in Holocaust denial.
I cannot rid myself of the visual stench of “Son of Saul.” It has lingered for two weeks. I have deeply respected other movies this year, but they soon faded from memory. “Son of Saul” has the staying power of a loved one’s death. It is unbearably brilliant.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.