Son of Saul & Cynical Claptrap (Interview with Terri Gross)

son of saul

It played at Cannes and just recently at the New York Film Festival, but it won’t be out for public release until December. Everything being written and said about Son of Saul sounds like it’s going to stand in sharp contrast to at least two decades of cloying Hollywood films about the Holocaust and Holocaust trivialization –including a lot of post-Holocaust discourse theory, some of it cynical claptrap, about the banality of evil or suggesting that Jews today should stop carping about it at the center of Jewish life. On Fresh Air the other evening, Terri Gross interviewed director László Nemes and actor Géza Röhrig to discuss the film and why what we might call Holocaust-memory still matters as a legacy with which to make sense of the moral universe. You can catch the interview here. I hope the link still works.

Since the 1980s, enormous amounts of ink has been spilled in Holocaust Studies about the limits of representation. Does the Holocaust represent an order of evil beyond human comprehension? What should artists, especially filmmakers show and not show? That limit tended to be marked out by the gas chamber and crematoria. These were things that no one should show or could even show and get right. From the sound of it, the ground broken by Son of Saul, a film about a member of a Sonderkommando, is to cross that moral and aesthetic line in order to pull the eye into that precise space. Perhaps something of a scandal, the film is a representation of what has remained heretofore hidden from view.

Here are what I took to be the main points from what was a broad ranging interview:  [1] To give visual sense to the combination of chaos and organization, the sheer lack of predictability that marked Auschwitz, [2] the omnipresence of death and the dead combined with a certain form of care for the dead and moral purpose, [3] the decision of the director to keep the camera constantly on the face of the main protagonist, to present the portrait of a face, [4] a discussion of Jewish life in communist Hungary and Poland, where the director and actor grew up and lived, [5] fear and knowing the past, [6] the idea of the image of God in the human person, its destruction, and robotic states of mind, [7] the initial attraction of (was it Nemes or Röhrig?), growing up in East Europe, to religion as a counterpoint to totalitarian ideology, autonomy and the problem of authority, including religious authority, [8] the stubborn refusal to put the Holocaust behind [9] genocide and shameless cruelty as ongoing patterns and parts of modern life.

About the interview itself, I’d note that it was intense and painful, and then it ended, sort of abruptly?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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