The opening scene of Son of Saul brings about something close to, but not quite, an involuntary sensation of revulsion. It’s a strange, swift and radical detachment from the events occurring on screen — the mind’s desperate attempt to crawl away from the bleak realities of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s to director Laszlo Nemes’ credit that this total withdrawal into mental blankness, a rejection of sight and sound, doesn’t happen. To speak broadly, the great purpose of the more conscionable representations of the Holocaust is to come as close to realizing the nauseating horrors of the camps as possible without triggering mental blockades that prevent us from incorporating information we’re unconsciously desperate to avoid. To combat this problem, often referred to as ‘the problem of representation’, Nemes has a tactic: he turns his camera around.
This initial scene is filmed in a slick single take that’s locked on a medium close up of its titular character, Saul (Géza Röhrig), herding fellow Jews into a gas chamber, and then cleaning the bodies out once the process of extermination is complete. A Hungarian Jew working as sonderkommando (a specialized rank of Jewish inmate forced to work within the chambers under threat of death and in exchange for slightly better living conditions within the camps), Saul waits at the locked metal doors that lead into the chamber, listening to — or perhaps vigorously ignoring — the bloodcurdling shrieks beyond it, before entering the chamber and shifting the bodies (reductively called “pieces” by Nazi officers) into a furnace.
It’s a brutally unsentimental sequence, establishing the film’s obfuscating visual methodology, a blinkered myopia of short-focused close-ups that transform all events transpiring beyond Saul’s face, a terrain of bewilderment and horror in and of itself, into a peripheral blur.1 That rigid scope is both estranging and empathetic, separating us from broader, more romantic perspectives and forcing us to read the events, which take place over two days in a loose real-time conceit, through the limited prism of Saul’s reactions. Visually and emotionally confusing, and often purposefully ambiguous, our proximity to Saul forces us to consider the (perhaps delusional) plight of a solitary man. Through this radically reduced scope, Nemes and Röhrig reclaim a semblance of humanity.
The most successful representations of genocide on screen follow a dictum most famously propagated by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in his towering Shoah, a colossal, nine-hour collation of testimony from Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, as well as outlying figures like passive citizens. In that film and in his expansive, dedicated work beyond it, Lanzmann has circulated the idea that the broad, murky horrors of the Holocaust are inassimilable to the narrows of Western consciousness (perhaps largely due to an inadmissible culpability) and ultimately unrepresentable by art. He reciprocates a precedent set by German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who memorably wrote that “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno later retracted this statement, reasserting that “suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” Both thinkers seem to agree, at least in theory, that poetic attempts at representation can and should persists for reasons of remembrance and awareness, but with the trepidation and full understanding that total representation of genocide, in all its horrific breadth, is ultimately impossible.
Great films about mass killing have averted this ‘total representation’ with skillful formal maneuverings. Recently, The Missing Picture, Rithy Pahn’s quietly shattering testimony of his survival of the Cambodian pogrom, used clay figurines to stage a poetic, slow-burning reconstruction. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, about the thuggish eradication of a million communist and Chinese-origin Indonesians, had the perpetrators re-enact their crimes in garish, genre-steeped set pieces. Lanzmann sticks to interviews and present-day footage of the campsites; in its full form, Shoah is vast and graspable, and yet nothing resembling primary footage of the Holocaust nor visual recreation is ever seen.
This impossibility of witness bears greatly on Nemes’ cinematic approach, not only in its limited visual scheme but also through a narrative that is rife with ambiguities. Inside the chamber, Saul stumbles across the body of a boy still choking on the its toxic fumes, miraculously alive. Saul recoils, retreating into his own thoughts, and we later learn that he thinks that the boy is his own son. He steals the now-limp body and hides it, and spends the duration of the film frantically searching for a rabbi to give the boy proper burial rites. It’s never made clear whether he’s actually Saul’s son, but it is suggested that the whole scheme is a product of Saul’s own mental deterioration, his own way of creating purpose within an organism that’s ultimate purpose is to destroy him.
Son of Saul is not, nor does it ever attempt to be, a treatise on totalitarianism or the banality of evil, or the culpability of the sonderkommando in their unique, harrowing role within the camps. What Nemes and Röhrig unsentimentally portray is a restrictive snapshot of life within a system of inhumanity that reduced these men to gears in a machine that worked for the destruction of their own kin. It must be restated that the sonderkommando were forced into compliance with the Nazis under the imminent threat of death, and were themselves eventually killed. Nemes and co-screenwriter Clara Royer seem to dispel with the idea that their cooperation with the Nazis is beholden to a measure of accountability; here, they aren’t pawns, but equal victims. Son of Saul is both a character study of a man whose hopeful delusions are no match for a killing machine devoid of any such hope, and a sober cinematic aide-mémoire that lives and breathes with the testimony of a thousand others. As Son of Saul’s accompaniment, Shoah’s expansive testimonies fill its gaps. As far as concrete explanations of the workings of the camps go, the eddy of terror of destruction that Saul provides is incomplete, but the structural intricacies of the camps gleaned in Lanzmann’s mammoth historical document are obviously operational in Son of Saul.
I can’t quite comprehend those who see the movie as a thriller, arousing heart-racing excitement through its structural tensions. This approach brazenly shoehorns Son of Saul into a genre framework, which says more about certain modes of criticism than it does about this particular film.2 Son of Saul doesn’t really appeal to our intellect or emotions — it exerts almost no emotional pull. It’s stunned, stilted. Through our insuperable attachment to Saul, we’re separated from the wider objectivities of the Shoah — we’re spun through a system where ideology is total, and where the last flickers of life, subjective and deeply concentrated in Saul’s inscrutable, dumbfounded stare, count for both everything in the world and nothing at all. The anomalies of genocide persist, as they always will, but Son of Saul doesn’t aspire to solving its philosophical deadlocks. If you, like I did, reciprocate a muted emotional response to the film, that’s both appropriate and expected — there’s no hope in hell, and Nemes assures us that the unthinkable role of the sonderkommando is hell’s absurd moral epicentre.
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