Nathan Le Master
May 21, 2016
Until I saw László Nemes’ Oscar winner, Son of Saul, my favorite Holocaust films were Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. In the characters of Oskar Schindler and the fictional Guido, we’re given stories that are tragically sentimental, bearing testimony to the beauty of resistance against an absolutely evil oppressor. Turning on Son of Saul, I anticipated a similar trope. Instead, I became mesmerized by Nemes’ absolute defiance of the traditional rules of cinematography, plot, and character study.
The first shot opens showing a scene of greenery, the camera completely out of focus. Then comes Saul (Géza Röhrig). He walks towards us, stops about a foot or two away. His rigid face is clear and in focus, but everything around remains foggy. A man comes into frame, says, “Let’s go.” Saul walks towards a crowd of people. Saul and the other men with red Xs marked on their coats herd the crowd into a building. Once inside, the men and women are ordered to undress. They are told that good jobs with good salaries are assured. They are told not to forget the numbered hook where they left they coats. Now they just need to shower first. Then warm soup with follow. They are corralled into a room. The door shuts. Saul and the other men with the Xs start pulling down coats. Then, screams inside the enclosed room are heard. Screams that crescendo into shouts and cries and dull thumps as the victims inside start banging the doors, begging to be released. The camera follows Saul but never abandons him as the focal point. Throughout this process, his face remains expressionless.
Rarely is it so appropriate to call the camera a character than in this piece by Nemes. While the camera’s closeness to the cast of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman practically forced us to be involved with their lives, Son of Saul forces on the audience a monopoly of Saul’s perception. Take for example the first scene. Here we have a conveyer-belt presentation of the new arrivals’ experience. Throughout this sequence, as well as throughout the shots showing Saul cleaning the aftermath of blood-stained floors and dead bodies ripe for the furnaces, his face is devoid of feeling. He mechanically does his assignment as Sonderkommando (a work unit of prisoners), and the face we’re given reveals very little emotion. Everything outside of this face remains out of focus. One interpretation of this may be that Saul deliberately refuses to process the hellishness in his peripheral vision. Or perhaps he’s so deadened by the drudgery that processing would sting too painfully. Regardless, the camera’s focus shifts for the first time when Saul becomes interested in a boy that manages to survive the gas chambers. After a Nazi doctor suffocates him, Saul overhears that the boy is ordained for autopsy.
And here we have the central premise of the film. Perhaps in admiration of the boy’s determination to live, Saul sees in the boy something worth preserving. He adopts the boy, claiming him to be his son, and becomes resolved to save him from the scalpel and the flames–a notion probably motivated in part by the disgust of Mengeleesque sadism, as well as the Old Law prohibition towards cremation. And so Saul becomes determined to not only bury the boy, but also find a rabbi willing to pray a funerary Kaddish, which, in the context of Auschwitz, under the hawk-like surveillance of the Nazi guards, is absolutely ludicrous. Even the sole rabbi in Saul’s Kommando, willing as he is to say a Kaddish, finds the idea preposterous. Nonetheless, Saul tirelessly seeks out a rabbi in other Sonderkommandos, never mind the risk of endangering others, as well as himself.
At one point, after impressing himself on a conspiracy of prisoners planning a revolt against the camp, Saul is assigned the task of furtively retrieving gunpowder from the women’s camp. He performs his assignment, but then, rather than returning to his unit, he meanders through a throng of new arrivals, absolute suicide given that particular evening. That night, so many newcomers had been unloaded at Auschwitz than what the camp could process, that the expedient Germans funneled the fresh arrivals to large pits where they were forced to strip, stand at the crater’s edge, and were duly shot. Unconcerned, Saul joins the crowd, accosting every bearded man. “Rabbi? Rabbi?” And in the midst of this hellish scene, with huddled naked bodies, stoic soldiers, screeching cries, Saul’s identity is forgotten, and he becomes mistaken as one of the condemned. Stripped of his jacket–demarcated with the red X of the Sonderkommando–Saul is inches away from death, until a kapo (a unit’s overseer) from a different unit recognizes him and mediates. Saul then quickly hurries back to the camp, but not alone. With him is a bearded French man. A rabbi? At least that’s what Saul believes.
When Saul returns to his unit, it’s discovered that 1) the gunpowder he was assigned to retrieve was lost, and 2) the decision was made that the majority of his Kommando’s men have been given a death sentence. At this point, the German soldiers start shooting the prisoners. However, the Germans underestimated the strength of this unit. Through sheer number these men overcome their guards and then they bring the fight outside. Once again, Saul is disinterested with this backdrop, and prioritizing his mission, grabs the body of his boy, as well as the rabbi, and flees the camp, running into the nearby forest. Once he finds an area with soft soil, he furiously starts digging and demands that the rabbi say the Kaddish. The rabbi begins. But the voice is off key. And then the prayer peters out. Saul stops digging. He looks up. Fraud. The man he took to be a rabbi was no rabbi, just a man desperate to escape the pit execution, even if it meant at the time following a Hungarian Jew questioning, “Rabbi? Rabbi?”
The final scene has Saul and a group of escapees sitting in an abandoned shed, resting and recovering. Saul had abandoned the boy’s body when swimming across a river. As Saul is sitting there, devastated, he looks up and sees a blond haired boy, clearly not Jewish, standing at the shed’s entrance. A smile gradually appears on the lips of Saul. In Jewish tradition, cremation is forbidden because of the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead. The body has to be preserved for this Resurrection, so because the boy wasn’t condemned to the flames, perhaps Saul sees this Polish peasant boy as the reincarnation of his “son,” if not in flesh, then maybe in spirit. Regardless, the boy runs away into the forest, and is stopped by a patrol of German soldiers, who disappear off screen. We then hear gunshots in the distance. The first boy was Saul’s source of hope. This latter is the harbinger of his death.
The question we, the audience, have to ask ourselves is where to place Saul’s motivations. A testament to futility? A despairing attempt to preserve one’s tradition from erasure? A final attempt at sanity amongst Auschwitz’s insanity? As much of an intimate relationship we develop towards Saul, with our literal nearness to him and our inevitable study of every movement of his face, we get no access to his thoughts. Saul claims that the boy is his son, even though his friends know this to be false. He frequently disregards his surroundings, risking death on multiple occasions, even threatening the livelihood of his entire Kommando, and completely disregarding the insurgency that could’ve saved his life. Borrowing the words of a compatriot, he “failed the living for the dead.” This is the magic of Nemes’ film. Every Holocaust film and novel centers around a lucid character determined to struggle against the Nazi killing machine. This is our expectation. We need this motif for the experience to still feel noble, and to not feel that the Nazi’s denigration of Judaism was in any way victorious. But I see this as a delusion. While there are moments of triumph, they’re definitely not the norm. After all, why should we expect people situated in an absurd environment to act in any way but absurd? In Saul, we’re given an absurd dreamer, both tortured by the Holocaust, and yet spiritually sane enough to fight privately for his culture, even if this victory is minuscule and appreciable only to himself. We love stories about heroes, but I prefer stories about individuals who disregard the game of winners and losers, those who have tunnel vision for a cause that may have no significance to anyone but him or herself. This is the heroism of Saul.
Everyone has the same sparse number of B&W images of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau, circulating in their heads from old documentaries and articles. And everyone is familiar with the movie-set-version of camps from other Holocaust films. But never have I felt so close to the grit and dirt of an actual camp, as in Son of Saul. For one, we, the audience, get exposure to every step in the sequence of the camps. We’re exposed to the arrivals, the gassing, the piling of bodies like dirty laundry, the furnaces, and the dumping of ashes into the river, with all of the accompanied screams, confusion, terror-stricken faces, and babble of languages. We see the politics of the kapos, the black markets, as well as the male and female prisoner interactions with the subtly implied sexuality. We hear the dark humor of the prisoners (e.g. one saying to another, “You want to go up in smoke?”). We learn the dehumanizing nomenclature of the Nazis, such as calling corpses, “pieces.” We encounter the thoroughness of Nazi indoctrination, with Jews insulting other Jews for being Jews. We meet the downtrodden, the sadists, the fighters, and most importantly, the irrational and the honest. Sure, the entirety of what the Holocaust is, or what Auschwitz is, or what even the concentration camp is, can never be contained in a single piece of art. But if a work comes close to this in form, story, and character, I nominate Nemes’ Son of Saul.