Who cares about the Holocaust anymore? Who goes to see a Holocaust movie and what does one want from it? These were my thoughts going in to see Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul this afternoon. For some time now, so many critical flags have been thrown down regarding the Holocaust, art and film about the Holocaust, allegedly mystifying claims made about the inability to represent much less “comprehend” the Holocaust, the politics of Holocaust memory, and so on. It would be obvious to say that the star of Hannah Arendt has defined much of the discourse in critical-left academic circles. That kitsch has saturated so much, if not all of the genre since Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List adds fuel to the critical fire. Jewish power today is now something actively resented by so many people, that one barely knows how to bring up the Holocaust in polite company.
It may be too early to say for sure, but I’m going to predict that Son of Saul sets a new standard, particularly for the arts and philosophy. A discourse-defining work of art, it belongs up there with Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of European Jewry, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, anything written by Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Saul Friedlander, Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Tough and comprehending and utterly immersive, Son of Saul does not pretend to understand too much.
Going into the theater, one shuts off these critical caveats in order to immerse oneself into the space of the film. Much has already been written about the film along with its plot and framing devices that I do not want to rehearse too much of it. Suffice it to say that the film is driven forward by one Saul Auslander, a member of the so-called Sonderkommando, presumably at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the responsibility of the Sonderkommando to herd fellow prisoners, primarily Jewish men, women, and children into the gas chambers, to collect their stripped possessions, pull their corpses out of the gas chambers and drag them to the crematoria. The plot of the film is like a fable. A young boy, not a child, almost a teenager, survives the gas chamber only to then be murdered, again as it were, by an attending Nazi physician. Auslander steals the boy’s body, searching for a rabbi to say kaddish for the boy so as to give him a proper burial.
I’m not sure how much I want to say about the plotline. As a formal device, the fiction takes the protagonist to other parts of the camp to which a member of the Sonderkommando might not have had regular access, and to show things that the viewer of the film might not otherwise see. I would suggest that the dead boy provides no moral relief or insight to the story or to the historical events upon which the film reflects. He forms instead a counterpoint that highlights the encompassing scene of human degradation.
Most important of all is the very decision by the director to focus the film around a member of the Sonderkommando. In claims made about and against Holocaust-representation going back to the 1980s and ever earlier, it has always been argued that there are “limits to representation.” In part, that was to say that it is impossible morally and artistically to depict the gassing of Jews and the burning of their bodies in the crematoria. Spielberg, for instance, stopped just short of this in Schindler’s List; he gave instead a crude anticipation, but did not cross that moral limit; something should simply not be shown.
In contrast, the choice by Nemes forces the camera right up that black zone, if not into the gas chamber itself, then right up to its door, where the protagonists and viewers are forced to listen to what sounds like a waving, terrible, terrified, and terrifying human wail and roar.
One would like perhaps to call this film an exposure to the real, to pretend that one has now been given to see the Holocaust in the real-time of the moving image. But like any film, Son of Saul remains an artificially and powerfully constructed semblance.
Much has been said about the decision by Nemes to focus almost entirely on the face of the main protagonist, Saul Auslander. One must either accept this decision on the director’s part, or simply reject the film, which is almost impossible, unless one decides to either to not see the film or to leave the film in the middle. The film stands out as a portrait, a moving-image of a face, a profile sharp and bird-like, the back of a man’s head, the hollow of his eyes, the stoop of his shoulders. Otherwise the perspectival point of view is quite restrained and limited. One is given to see nothing else, the living and the dead with too much clarity, mostly bodies and body fragments coming into and out of focus. The eye is evasive. The camera looks out of the corner of its eye, as it were. With no direct gaze, it reveals and conceals simultaneously.
The point I suppose is to approximate the point of view of the protagonist, who goes about his duties with the precision of a robot. But it is important to note that the rule is set up to be violated at least once in the film. (There may have been other similar scenes but I noted only one.) In this particular scene, that off-focus camera shot is deliberately broken, and we see not Auslander but more clearly and suddenly what he sees. It is a scene of utter chaos and horror. I’ll save that detail for a special spoiler-alert, which I’ll hide at the very bottom of the post, not for moral reasons, but to keep it from anyone who has not yet seen the film).
For the most part, the “what” that the viewer is given to see and also to hear is formed around the subject position of Auslander, the putatively main protagonist of the film. While this comes into and out of more or less focus throughout the entirety of the film, this is already much more than one has ever seen in a Holocaust movie. Mostly it’s a view of physical and moral decay, filthy grime and human viscera. Just as much as one sees, one hears an awful lot, but also, finally in fragments. These might be more human, being the frightened and softly hurried whispers, groans, shouts, cries, sudden blows and sharp gunshots, trucks, machines, doors slamming shut, prayers, again all organized around the constantly shifting subject position of the main protagonist. Rather than a set of pure visuals, the film is built more fundamentally around very fast and confusing tempos as if meant deliberately to upset the viewer’s equilibrium and to hurry him or her through a long, continuous scene of destruction.
During the film itself, I glanced at my watch in the dark but decided not to look. Leaving the theater at the conclusion of the movie returns one to the life of the city. After the rough tempo of the film, the real-life traffic of people and cars move to a more slow and relaxed rhythm. Attuned inside the darkened theater-space to listening for snippets of human sound in the film, one pays close attention to the relative quiet outside on a busy street, while picking up fragments of conversation by passerby.
But what about polite company? The reception of the film in the New York Times has been curious, to say the least. On the one hand, the movie received a lot of attention when it first showed at Cannes, and then again before its Friday release in New York. But on release day itself, it was relegated to the deep inside of the Friday Performing Arts section. On the basis of whatever editorial decision, Son of Saul was bumped from the first page by Sisters, the brand new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler film.
A.O. Scott wrote the main review for the Friday release. You can read his review here. About Nemes, Scott writes as if by way of a concession, “His skill is undeniable, but also troubling. The movie offers less insight than sensation, an emotional experience that sits too comfortably within the norms of entertainment. This is not entirely the director’s fault. The Holocaust, once forbidden territory, is now safe and familiar ground.” These comments makes no sense of film that is neither familiar nor safe. As for the insight Scott would want from the film, one would have to ask what kind of “insight” there might be to offer in the first place beyond that of the hard physical and mental sensation of the film itself, the shock to the system.
Reporting from Cannes back in May, Manohla Dargis called Son of Saul a “radically dehistoricized, intellectually repellent movie.” You can read her review here. Maybe she meant about its protagonist that, “He’s surviving, and that’s about it. Yet these filmmaking choices also transform all the screaming, weeping condemned men, women and children into anonymous background blurs.” It might rather be the case that it is hard not to see how a movie about the Holocaust could be anything but repellent, intellectually and morally. That was Jean Amery’s point in the essay collected under the title At the Mind’s Limts. Whether or not one wants to judge if survivors “survived and that’s about it,” the reduction of a visual field to anonymous background blurs is a perfectly cogent interpretation of a protagonist’s point of view.
Thinking about these critical response, it could be that the Holocaust has lost its place in polite company. I’m not sure. At any rate contra Dargis, none of the main characters survive the film. What the film does so well is to immerse the viewer into a situation, suspending judgment about people dragged down to “the rock bottom of their morality,” as per this comment here by Géza Röhrig, the actor who plays Auslander. You can read here the transcript of that discussion with Nemes in an interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air.
You can read here some spoiler alerts. Revealing a little too much about the movie for those who may not have yet seen it, they also touch upon religion.
Great essay, Zak.
The discussion brings to mind the (Lanzmann-based) arguments about the exhibition of the 4 Sonderkommando photographs taken secretly inside the gas chamber at Birkenau. They were exhibited in the exhibition “Memoire des camps” in Paris in 2001.. Their inclusion was attacked in the Lanszmann-sponsored,journal,”Les temps modernes” [v. 56, 2001], which then resulted in an eloquent book-length rejoinder from art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, “Images in Spite of All’ (2008) –in my opinion, an essential read.