Son of Saul, the first feature film by Hungarian director László Nemes, stirred up much controversy at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where many, including the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, denounced it as exploitative, despite the fact that it went on to win the Grand Prix. If you don’t know that the film is about one prisoner’s experience of the Holocaust, the controversy perhaps makes little sense. And on the surface, one might be able to imagine why: the film follows the daily experiences of one Sonderkommando at Auschwitz with a level of detail and single-mindedness rare in previous representations of the Holocaust. Of the film’s defenders, perhaps the most surprising is Claude Lanzmann, the documentarian whose 10 hour film Shoah, which eschews direct visual reference to the atrocities of the camps, remains the definitive account of the event. Lanzmann, a critic of almost all cinematic narrative approaches to the subject, hailed the film as an “anti-Schindler’s List” and “a very new film, very original, very unusual.” Given this unusual praise from a notoriously caustic skeptic, this viewer entered assuming that the controversy would be self-evident, and I would leave the film feeling either transported or repelled. So perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that its greatest mystery is the controversy surrounding it. The subject matter is indeed intense, and the narrative does not utilize the usual tactics when dealing with this subject: it does not sentimentalize the experience (much) and it does not take a sweeping, definitive approach, as does a film like Schindler’s List. It does deal with the day to day realities of the camps that even the grittiest films on the subject (outside of purely exploitative works nobody tends to take seriously as anything but prurient titillation) do not much linger on: the deception necessary on the part of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners dragooned into making the death machine run as smoothly as possible) to facilitate the quick movement of fresh prisoners from the trains, into the showers, and then, after their executions, the backbreaking, numbed task of pilling corpses onto carts, feeding them into the ovens, cleaning up, picking through belongings, and thus resetting the stage for it to happen again, and again. What is shocking is that, given the film’s program, it does not have much impact. Despite the praise of Mr. Lanzmann, the film does indulge in a narrative that, while not melodramatic in the sense that many other Holocaust films are, still very much fits the mold of an art film, with a desire to be symbolic on an almost literary level, and to make use of many contrivances to push forward an account of the Holocaust that is, despite its opening rhetoric of inescapable, quotidian horror, a tale of an exceptional individual seeking a redemption no less audacious (and perhaps more repellent) than Oscar Schindler’s.
It is hard to proceed without spoiling something, I suppose; or rather, the film is already spoiled, as we know how things will inevitably end from the beginning (this being a film about that horror with no exit), the experience of viewing the film unaware of all else about it the only way to keep it from being foreclosed from the start. The plot takes little describing. A Hungarian Sonderkommando named Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) witnesses a boy, still alive, pulled from under a pile of corpses in the gas chamber. He later calls this boy, soon snuffed out by a Nazi doctor, his son, but the actuality of this assertion is in question; other prisoners claim he has no son. It becomes his quest, for reasons obscure and either indicative of Saul’s utter acceptance of his existential situation, or of the loss of his sanity, to preserve this boy from an autopsy and find a rabbi to give him a proper Jewish burial. Over the course of a day and a half or so, Saul will manage to move from one work gang to others, across many different modes of camp life, to fulfill his quest – and, at the same time, to provide us viewers with a tour of the camp that, while different from those provided by other Holocaust films in terms of point of view, is much similar to other films in terms of its desired sweep. As it happens, Saul’s quest overlaps with a very unusual time in the history of Auschwitz, and of the camps in general: the prisoner revolt of October 7, 1944, which led to the destruction of one of the crematoria and the escape of many prisoners through the wire fence. Saul is tasked with helping in this rebellion, but his single mindedness botches his part in the revolt, which causes his fellow Jews to excoriate him for prioritizing the dead over the living. Nonetheless, Saul manages to escape with the other Sonderkommando, the dead boy over his shoulder, and in the final moments of the film, he fails in his ultimate task, losing the boy’s body as he attempts to ford a river. Hiding with other escapees in a wooded shed, Saul sees a young German boy, about the age of the Jewish child he attempted to bury, spy them through the door. He smiles strangely, as if relieved, and the boy runs away as German soldiers approach to execute the escaped prisoners. We follow the boy as he flees into the woods, and hear the sound of distant gunfire.
What makes the film truly unique, and gives it what interest and intensity it has, is its formal technique of tying the camera to Saul’s point of view in a very austere way. Nemes uses a very shallow depth of field and the Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1 to restrict our view of the camp drastically. The camera is almost always centered on the back of Saul’s head, following him as he moves and performs his required tasks, sometimes pivoting around the side so we can see his profile or the front of his face; in a few rare cases, he moves away from it to give us a glimpse of a fuller reality. In all cases, however, the depth of field is so shallow that almost everything we see of the camps is a blur and indistinct – the horrors are suggested rather than dramatized. The result is that the film’s visuals reflect Saul’s interiority and single-mindedness to an exceptional degree. He is only concentrating on what is right in front of him, the task at hand, either as a means of survival or as the unsurprising result of such numbing trauma, and the film succeeds in making his perspective ours to an uncanny degree. The true horror of the surrounding events is conveyed by sound design that, while exceptionally well done, makes up in the aural sphere for the lack of visual obscenity. We hear the doomed screaming, wailing, and pounding on the iron doors to the gas chamber as the poisoned air does its work; we hear methodical gunshots and cries of despair as person after person is led into a ditch backlit by unfocused, burning pyres. The most disturbing aspect of the film is the pairing of Saul’s impassive demeanor as he mechanically moves through a multitude of spaces with these auditory nightmares. While heavy-handed in the extreme, to the point of perhaps indeed being obscene, the opening of the movie has power in the methodical repetition of this grinding reality. That movie, where we simply follow Saul for two hours as he is forced to do such infernal work, would have truly been unique and unusual, although perhaps intolerable (and impossible to imagine being funded by any investor anywhere). As it is, though, the movie acquires its plot, and as Saul begins his quest, the “reality” thus established starts to seep away. We very quickly enter the realm of the symbolic, and pretentiously so – is the dead child Saul’s real son? Or is he a representative (pace Arthur Miller) of all the dead sons left unredeemed? Is Saul insane and selfish, sacrificing the possibility of escape from the camp for others in favor of a sham symbolism? Or is he the most clear-eyed of everyone, seeing that there is no escape, and hence, albeit absurdly, working toward one holy act within a sea of desecration? All these questions are made possible only by setting the film during this exceptional and uncharacteristic moment in the life of the camps, just as Saul’s task makes possible a tour of the camps for our sake which would also, in almost any moment of camp existence, be equally unlikely. Thus we have contrivance heaped upon contrivance, all to ask a series of questions that have no answer and, ultimately, no purpose aside from a self-serving, pseudo-poetic one. It seems bizarre, given such a setup, for Lanzmann to claim that the film “gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando” – as if he is an arbiter of such realities! Of course one, upon seeing the film, understands what he is getting at, but we also understand, perhaps more so than in other films, just how vast the gulf is between what we can know about such experience and what is represented before us; and in this fact, we might find the film’s saving grace. For at the end of Son of Saul, we are all forced to ask: what was the point? Not simply of this film, but of representing the Holocaust at all? What are we doing? Trying to learn something? Trying to have sympathy with those who were destroyed? Getting a vicarious thrill – or feeling an unearned pride at play-suffering in a mock parallel with those who were lost? For all its failure and pretension on a narrative and artistic level, the ending of the film, with Saul’s queasy, self-satisfied smile patching over a bogus transcendence, meaningful only to an insane mind, provides a reflection of the viewers of such films. We watch Holocaust films seeking the void, but can only find pleasure of some sort; usually the most narcissistic, self-deluding variety. We hide from the truth, which is that we want to enjoy this horror. Perhaps, in this way, films like SS Experiment Love Camp, while the saddest response to this moment in history, are also the most honest. Perhaps Lanzmann had it right all along – you cannot represent the Holocaust directly.