Son of Saul – Laszlo Nemes (2015)

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.

Two out of five stars

Phoenix – Christian Petzold (2015)

Phoenix is a film that seeks to understand how we live through traumatic events. It is also a film about the passing of time, and the effect that passing has on our relationships, and on ourselves. Is it possible to recapture, or reestablish, what once was? Is there power in returning to places and people of past import, a prospect of mastery and satisfaction in regaining what was lost, or instead is it the mark of weakness, a sign of an inability to accept that the past is closed and to embrace the reality of the new person looking back at us in the mirror? Is the return a rebuke to those who scorned or betrayed us, a kind of revenge upon the past and a reassertion of our own identity, or instead a kind of stasis, a blind alley we venture down, inviting further trauma and abuse, in our inability to accept new realities? With this film, Christian Petzold delves into questions of identity not only on a personal level, but on a national one as well. Scripted by the director and the late, great Harun Faroki, Phoenix is very reminiscent of the kammerspiele films made in Germany during the early to mid 1920s. Those films, such as Murnau’s The Last Man or Jessner’s Backstairs, tend to feature lower middle class protagonists stuck in closed loops of possibility and identity formation. Often set in a few locations, most often the interiors of dingy apartments (or a men’s washroom, in the case of The Last Man), these films concentrate on psychodrama and character development, using expressionistic camerawork and lighting to augment the internal emotional states of their subjects (as well as make up for the lack of action in a more traditional sense). Set just after the end of the first World War, these films reference the damage of that conflict, both upon the bodies of their characters, and, albeit in sublimated form, upon the national character as a whole. Phoenix is similarly set just after a World War, but we have moved forward 20 years, and so find ourselves not in a world of the decrepit escapism and febrile political rebirth provided by the early Weimar years, but instead within the rubble of a destroyed and conquered Berlin, seemingly in a trance after its “liberation” from Nazi power. It asks the strange question – what would happen if you returned to the scene of your former life, went unrecognized, and then were asked to impersonate yourself?

We begin in the days just after the war, shortly after the liberation of the camps by Allied forces. Our protagonist is Nelly, a successful and cosmopolitan singer before the war who, ethnically Jewish but non-practicing, was at first hidden by her friends and husband until she was perhaps sold out by them. Her husband, Johnny, was a successful pianist, but not Jewish. When we meet Nelly, she has just barely survived the camps, and has been disfigured by violence shortly before they fell. Accompanied by her friend, caretaker, and Zionist Lene, Nelly undergoes plastic surgery to restore her face. She is warned that she should pick a new “type” of visage, as trying to get her back to her old self will leave her in an uncanny place, partly looking like she used to, partly a stranger. Regardless, she wants to look as close to her past self as she can. Healed up and, presumably, occupying the doubly uncanny space of not quite looking like herself while slipping back into the city she once called home, now a broken edifice, Nelly becomes obsessed with news of Johnny, and wishes a reunion. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was the cause of her suffering, but Nelly is unconvinced (or perhaps simply still in love). She searches the streets, and then the nightclubs, until she discovers him, working, not as a musician, but as a busboy. After a few missed connections, she finally gets to speak with him, but he does not recognize her, and she does not reveal her true identity. Taking her for someone desperate for work, rather than truth, Johnny (now calling himself Johannes) suggests that since she somewhat resembles his past wife, whom he is convinced is dead, Nelly should enter into a deception with him. She will pretend to be his wife, mocking up a return to the city for the benefit of their friends, and, ultimately, to his benefit, as his wife was due to inherit her family’s estate (since the entire family was murdered in the camps). Nelly will pretend to be… Nelly, long enough for Johnny to claim the estate. Nelly will get a cut, she is assured. So we enter this strange, dreamlike pas de deux where Nelly lives most of the time with Johnny, observing him, trying to ferret out the truth of his betrayal. Was it forced upon him by circumstance – and hence is there a possibility for a reunion? Or did he sell her out callously, revealing himself to be a different man than she believed? Lene, of course, is horrified at this turn of events. About how the plot resolves itself, I will say no more, except that it is one of those rare films (rare except in the works of a master like Tarkovsky) where the final shot reveals everything, bringing together all the threads of the narrative as well as laying bare the emotional truths at play throughout. In this, Phoenix is fairly singular among recent films, as it practically demands to be viewed a second time in order to sort through the implications of the resolution and to allow us to feel the full force of the ambivalences and ironies at play in this tragedy. (Or is it a story of strength and redemption)?

The narrative may sound contrived. In some ways, it is guilty on this count, but it matters not, as we understand we are witnessing not just a character drama, but a larger metaphor for the afterlife. Not heaven, mind you, but life after the world has been destroyed. In the reunion of Nelly and Johnny, we witness the attempted assimilation of the survivors of a pogrom into a social fabric that they, years earlier, would have called their own. We sense that Johnny is now Johannes as a way to shore up his German identity post-facto; not as a way of proving his nationalism (as he might have done during the war), but as a means of convincing himself that this is who he was all along, as a way of both explaining to himself why he could do what he did, as well as running from the memory of that past life (in this way, the name becomes his scarlet letter). Nelly is trying to come to terms with the betrayal of an entire nation as it is personified in the people she knew and loved; were these people different than she always thought, or were they too the instruments of a diabolical machine far beyond anyone’s control? Are they sorry? Do they feel guilty? Are they even responsible for what happened to her? By being asked to impersonate herself, Nelly becomes a metaphor for her own impossible situation – she is still the same, and she is also completely different. She is, in effect, being asked to live both in the past, and in the future, with the present a kind of waking nightmare. The film has a taste of noir, but the airless, compressed, and dreamlike nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of the previously mentioned kammerspiele, and the different registers the film works in removes any reluctance we might have to accept this contrivance as truth. For Nelly is a contrived person – she is trying to recover an identity stolen from her while accounting for the fact that everyone she knew has also had something taken from them. In a way, the ending suggests, she is in the best possible position, for whatever her future, she does not have to reconcile her own guilt, or wonder what lie she has chosen to live. Her mask is sewn onto her face – she really is a new person – whereas her countrymen are left wondering, perhaps, if the mask they once donned is their true self, or worse, if there is a difference between the mask and the reality. Petzold is a well regarded German director, but one whose work I know far too little of – while he is responsible for prominent films such as Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), I am only familiar with his entry in the Dreileben trilogy (his entry, the excellent first segment Something Better than Death (2011), deals with young love and class relations in an exceptionally nuanced and heartbreaking way). Phoenix is a rarity, in that it provides no answers, easy or otherwise, and no closure, while being sensitive to the points of view, and the pain, of all its characters, be they tainted by their choices or not. While the phoenix is often the emblem of rebirth, a kind of token for moving on, Petzold concentrates on the ashes, and on the struggle that lies behind the attempt to keep going. For ashes also signify rest, and finality, whereas the process of birth is a violent one. Rebirth is no more of a choice than death is, and the true horror of Nelly’s ordeal is that, dead or alive, she has no way out of it. At the same time, the phoenix can fly, and the film also suggests that impersonating herself might not help her fly off to a wonderful new life, but that she can perhaps climb above the world that left her behind.

Four and a half stars out of five


The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five