At several camps the Nazis established units of Jewish male prisoners (sonderkommandos) picked for their youth and relative health. Those at Auschwitz-Birkenau lived in better physical conditions than other inmates and were divided into different groups, each with specialised functions including greeting new arrivals to the camp; sorting their suitcases and packages for shipping to Germany; removing dead bodies from the gas chambers; processing the corpses i.e. removal of clothes and valuables; and transporting the corpses to the crematoria.
Sonderkommandos acted from a variety of motivations including prolonging survival, protection of friends/family or enhanced rations/resources. And the alternative they faced was death in the gas chambers, or being shot on the spot. By the time of the liberation of the camps by the Allies most sonderkommandos had either died from poor health or had been killed by the Nazis in order to remove witnesses to their crimes.
Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes’ debut feature has been greeted with critical adulation and multiple awards. He is widely seen as having pulled off the notoriously difficult task of making a film about the Holocaust with sensitivity and assurance. Claude Lanzmann, the legendary director of ‘Shoah’, the landmark nine-hour oral history documentary widely seen as the most successful cinematic approach to the Holocaust (who has criticised films such as ‘Schindler’s List’) has said that he loves ‘Son of Saul’ and considers it a very good depiction of the life of the sonderkommandos.
Nemes himself states that he made the film for people in his own family who died in the Holocaust. He has praised the Hungarian Film Fund, the only organisation willing to support the film, which enabled it to be made (the film has been hugely successful at the box office in Hungary). When accepting his Oscar Nemes stated that the hope of the film was to show that ‘even in the darkest hours, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human’.
Its good faith and moral and intellectual seriousness are beyond doubt. Rohrig’s performance is transfixing, without ever drifting into the realm of actorly pretence. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
As vividly, devastatingly portrayed as anything I have experienced in the cinema. Mark Kermode, The Observer