Cast: Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn
Oscar Wins: Best Foreign Language Film (Hungary)
SUMMARY: Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1944. Saul works as a Sonderkommando, who are in charge of operating the gas chambers and crematoria. He has to search the clothing of the prisoners, remove the bodies from the gas chambers, and scrub the chamber after each gassing. Sonderkommandos have notoriously short lifespans in the camp, as the Nazis periodically kill them and create new groups. Saul seems to have grown use to his horrendous task: he shows no emotion while working and avoids all conversation. However, when emptying the chamber one day he discovers the body of a teenaged boy who is still breathing. The Nazi doctor quickly suffocates the boy, then orders an autopsy on the body. However, Saul seems to have recognized the boy, and decides that he must find a way to ensure a proper Jewish burial. He manages to convince the doctor to postpone the autopsy, but when he asks the only known rabbi to perform the burial, the man refuses. Meanwhile, other Sonderkommando members are planning an uprising against the guards. One of them, Abraham (Levente Molnar), wants to use violence, but the Oberkapo, Biedermann (Urs Rechn), wants to secretly take pictures of the camp and send them to the Allies. It is Abraham who tells Saul of another rabbi in a different Sonderkommando group. Saul manages to maneuver his way through the different camp groups undetected until he is in the same unit with the other rabbi, a Greek known as the Renegade. This man also refuses to help, so Saul starts reciting the Kiddush to try to force the issue. The Renegade continues to ignore him, so Saul throws the man’s shovel (he is shoveling ashes into the river) into the water — only to have the man wade in as a suicide attempt. Saul rescues the Renegade, but both are then taken before the Nazis. Saul is spared, but the Renegade is shot.
Saul makes his way back to his own unit and tries to retrieve the boy’s body from the prison hospital. He is surprised by the arrival of a group of Nazi doctors, who humiliate him before sending him away. Saul was unable to find the body, but learns that the doctor hid it to keep it from the Nazis. After learning of the hiding place Saul is able to get back in and take the body, which he takes to his barrack in a large sack. That evening a new shipment of people arrives and Saul’s unit is summoned to work. Saul is ordered to clear the dinner table of the camp commandant; it is here that he witnesses the commandant ordering Oberkapo (Jewish leader of the Sonderkommando group) Biedermann to write up a list of seventy names. Both Biedermann and Saul believe this means their unit will soon be gassed, so Abraham decides the uprising must happen immediately. He sends Saul to the women’s camp to pick up smuggled gunpowder. On the way back Saul encounters a huge crowd of new arrivals, who are being shot in the woods. He searches the new arrivals for a rabbi, and finally finds a French man, Braun, who says he is a rabbi. He sneaks Braun back into his own barrack, disguised as another Sonderkommando, only to encounter an irate Abraham. Saul realizes that during his return he has lost the package of gunpowder. When Abraham demands to know what is going on, Saul reveals that the body is that of his illegitimate son. The next morning Saul and the others discover that Biedermann’s group has been killed. Abraham immediately starts his uprising, and in the chaos Saul manages to escape and retrieve the body from his barrack. Carrying the body, he escapes into the woods with several other prisoners. He tries to bury it there, but when Braun cannot say the Kaddish Saul realizes that he is not really a rabbi. He hears the Nazis approaching, so he takes the body and tries to wade across the river with it. He nearly drowns in the process but is saved by the original rabbi, who forces him to release the body. The surviving prisoners take shelter in an abandoned shed and make plans to find the Polish resistance. As they are talking, the Nazis find the shed; gunfire erupts as the film ends.
MY TAKE: The Sonderkommandos had probably the worst jobs in the Nazi concentration camps, because they were forced to participate in the extermination of other prisoners. While the Nazis actually released the crystals that created the poisonous gas, it was the Sonderkommandos who filled the chambers with people, searched their clothing for valuables, and removed the bodies after death. They then had to scrub the floors of the chambers, presumably for blood. Other units were in charge of burning the bodies, and still others disposed of the ashes. When the Nazis abandoned this method and just shot people in the woods, they also used the Sonderkommandos to help keep order. Atop all of this, the Sonderkommando units usually only lasted a few months or so before being exterminated themselves, because the Nazis didn’t want them disclosing information about what was going on. The only plus to life as a Sonderkommando was that material living conditions were slightly better, as was the food, because the labor was so much harder. This is probably why Saul does not look like the emaciated concentration camp survivors from movies and pictures, and is also why he had his own little room rather than sharing a bunk with other people. There really was an uprising of the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos in 1944, where they used smuggled gunpowder (retrieved by women) to blow up one of the crematoria. A small group of prisoners did escape, but were quickly recaptured. So, while this story is not based on fact, it takes place during an actual historical event. If surviving as a Sodnerkommando isn’t hard enough, Saul decides to hold a proper Jewish burial for this boy who somehow survived the gassing. Saul claimed several times that the boy was his son, but I was never able to figure out if this was true, or just an explanation he gave. He didn’t act like the boy was his son in my opinion, but given how numb he was to the work he was doing that might not mean anything. When confronted about his claim that the boy was his son, Saul claimed that he was illegitimate, which to me suggested that he was just saying that in an attempt to make the others understand his desire for a proper burial. My opinion is that Saul didn’t actually know the boy, but when he discovered that the kid had somehow lived through the gassing he felt a special connection. He didn’t want this special boy to be cut open and treated like a science experiment, so he decided to steal the body and bury it in the Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, the camp seems to have either destroyed or severely weakened the faith of the rabbis he can find — the only real hope, the first rabbi, doesn’t see any point in a proper burial. I was amazed that Saul was able to move so freely through the different groups in the camp, because I thought security would have been a lot tighter than that. Given how meticulous their records were, and the inability of people to truly escape the camp, I would have thought that his absence from his own group, or presence in a new one, would have been noticed quickly. Maybe this freedom of movement was due to the fact that the Sonderkommandos were frequently replaced, so new faces wouldn’t have been unusual. The whole film is gut-wrenching, due to its setting, but the most heartbreaking moment for me came when Saul realized that Braun had lied to him to save his own skin — he wasn’t a real rabbi. I can understand the action on Braun’s part: he saw an opportunity for survival and he took it. However, from Saul’s point of view this is devastating. he had taken great pains to keep Braun safe and unrecognized, and thought he had finally arranged for a proper burial. Then, at the moment of burial — while the Nazis are chasing them — he realizes that the man isn’t a rabbi after all. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he didn’t give up right there. Instead, he tries to take the body across the river with him, but is nearly drowned. Curiously, it is the original rabbi that saves him, which suggested to me that the man may have regained some of his faith. I actually thought that the group was going to get away from the Nazis, especially after crossing a body of water (dogs can’t track across water, obviously). I do know that basically no one escaped from a concentration camp, particularly from Auschwitz, so while I was not surprised to see the approach of the guards, I was saddened. After all that, Saul fails to bury the boy, and is killed himself.
RATING: Hard to watch.