‘Son of Saul’ (2015) reconceptualizes the Holocaust in cinema
After seeing “Son of Saul” (2015) at the Telluride Film Festival, I witnessed director László Nemes correct renowned Holocaust film scholar Annette Insdorf, who likened his film to “Schindler’s List” (1993). To Nemes, “Schindler’s List” focused on some 3,000 survivors amongst 12 million casualties and absurdly romanticized the Holocaust. This absurd portrayal of an already absurd era normalizes and renders cloyingly palatable this horrific past. One sees the same in many of cinema’s most recognizable Holocaust titles such as “La vita è bella” (1997) and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). While there is “Night and Fog” (1955) and of course, “Shoah” (1985), the atrocities of concentration camps precisely preclude the immediacy of the filmic image. Cinematic escapism quickly becomes entrapment and internment when one revitalizes Auschwitz on the screen. Therefore, Nemes crafts his anti-sentimental, icily confrontational debut tour-de-force to dismantle decades of misrepresentation and display Auschwitz in its infernal, chaotic form.
The film follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a stoic, rugged member of the Sonderkommando, a select unit of Jewish prisoners tasked with disposing of gas chamber victims. In one of the most traumatic opening scenes in recent cinema, the Sonderkommando and Germans corral captives into their showers, with the promise that the Germans will employ them afterwards. The near maternal affectations of the Nazis — “Hurry up or your soup will get cold” — become deadly lures, leading to the abject cacophony of dying prisoners choking on their poisonous reality. Soon, Saul and other Sonderkommando are rifling through jacket pockets for valuable goods and scrubbing the blood-stained chamber floors, until the coughing of a teenage boy interrupts the frenzy. A doctor quickly extinguishes the child; however, Saul vows to provide him a proper Jewish burial. Saul’s dogged promise to his son carries him through the subsequent abuses of camp life.
The drama then unfolds in the interstices of the frame, as we follow behind Saul experiencing his daily trials. The blurred, abstracted camp diminishes the trauma and forces audiences to complete the elliptical visuals. While avoiding the histrionics of Spielberg or the gratuity of Resnais, Nemes aims for a stark yet accessible articulation of Auschwitz. The shallow focus perhaps translates the myopia inflicted on Holocaust victims, as death lurked behind every corner. The only object in constant clarity is Saul’s lapel, a solipsistic representation amidst the horrors of Auschwitz; amongst the burning corpses and gas showers, can any reality exist besides one’s own? This unreality informs Saul’s desperate attempt to give this young boy a proper Jewish burial, and find some significance within this nightmarish realm. The debate of whether the boy is truly Saul’s son seems peripheral to Saul’s central drive to preserve humanity within this chaos. Nemes captures other forms of rebellion, from one Sonderkommando capturing furtive photos of abuses to another privately writing his narrative in the bunks. Ultimately, the Sonderkommando plan an uprising, and enlist Saul in their grand scheme to rage and rage against the dying of their light. Whether they escape and survive must be told by Nemes himself.
While the film’s cinematographic aesthetic tires into a tactic rather than expressive mode, particularly in rather benign moments of plotting or marching, it confronts a central dilemma with the Holocaust: can it be put to film? The hundreds of articulations and inflections on this theme point to its impossible, abject vastness. As David Novak put it, “The Holocaust is a black hole. To look at it directly is to be swallowed up by it.” Will there be one image or a series of juxtaposed images which translate the atrocities? Or must it be experienced? Nemes, through his first person idiom attempts to give us just that; divorced from sentimentality and contrived plotting, the camera merely follows the winding trajectory of Saul’s death march. While it exists in the shadow of “Shoah,” “Son of Saul” confronts the dark abyss and attempts to reconceptualize the Holocaust in cinema and largely succeeds in this gutsy, unforgiving debut.