Son of Saul probes tormented tasks of Sonderkommando

Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’ harrowing debut feature film, “Son of Saul,” spotlights a day and a half in the life of a 1944 Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jewish prisoner, one of those forced to help usher Jews into the gas chambers, then remove the corpses and burn them in the crematoria ovens, all with the knowledge that the Nazis would purge the likes of him and his colleagues every few months.

Géza Röhrig, a Hungarian-born Jew who lives in the Bronx, as Saul photo/courtesy sony pictures classics

As the film opens, Saul is portrayed as an emotional zombie, inured to the horrors of his gruesome environment until he discovers a boy who miraculously survived the gas chamber, only to be murdered by a Nazi doctor minutes later. Convinced that the child was his son, Saul embarks upon a feverish mission to find a rabbi to recite Kaddish and to properly bury the boy, even as his fellow Sonderkommando members are planning a rebellion against their captors.

Saul’s mission to bury the boy appears to be as much a revolt, albeit an internal one, as his comrades’ rebellion against the Nazis.

The drama, which opens Jan. 15 in San Francisco, won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival last year and, as Hungary’s official submission for the 2016 Academy Awards, is a semifinalist for best foreign language film. It earned mostly stellar reviews for its unconventional, immersive approach to the Holocaust film genre.

During a fall interview at a West Hollywood hotel, Nemes, a 38-year-old Hungarian Jew, appeared pale, his voice quiet but feverishly intense as he described how from earliest childhood he’d heard stories of how his great-grandparents perished in 1944 at Auschwitz.

This article was reprinted from the L.A. Jewish Journal. To view the full story, visit Please also include tagline at bottom of story about when and where the film opens in S.F.


Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal