by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
How can such a film be so painful, heartbreakingly horrifying and hopeful all at the same time?
László Nemes’ haunting Holocaust film won the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Just a few weeks ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science gave the “best foreign film award” to this same film, ‘Son of Saul’.
Hauntingly personal the movie-goer travels with a Jewish Hungarian prisoner deep into the bowels of the evil of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of the death camp prisoners called Sonderkommando. He wears a red “X” painted on the back of his jacket and receives minor tiny increases in food for, among other tasks, carting bodies of executed prisoners from the gas chambers, to the pyres and then disposing of the ashes.
After seeing a young boy among the many dead, and believing the boy is his son, Saul becomes obsessed with finding a rabbi and acquiring a proper burial for him.
This quest takes him, and movie-goers, through unspeakable situations.
If you have ever wondered at the meaning of the term “singleness of heart” this film blatantly brings it to life in the actions of Saul.
Throughout the film the setting purposely shows a back-drop of horror and Saul navigating it without visible emotion. While Saul is unequivocally the focus of the film, we are painfully aware of the frantic noise, the present threat of pain and death and, what we know of the history of the atrocities invoked by the Nazis, which is always there in the back of our minds. Those realities make the film important to watch and hard to see.
And it causes one to ask how in the midst of all this could someone scrawl these words on a wall in WWII Germany: “I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining, I believe in love even when I can’t feel it, & I believe in God even when He’s silent.”
This film is not without controversy. See this Religion News Service article about how the movie was funded.
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels