Son of Saul Dir. László Nemes

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2015]

Styles: drama, holocaust
Others: The Man from London

The Holocaust has, by now, been represented enough times on film that each new depiction demands justification more than the last. Academic scrutiny, warring thinkpieces, and critical deconstructions pit each new film on the subject against those that came before, demanding that this film achieves something that another one hasn’t done better. There is reason to be vigilant against the exploitation of genocide by way of rejecting banality, but that attitude sometimes seems to elevate to an almost sacred status what was a savage and complex event. The extermination of millions of human beings is too devastating and important an event to distort or trivialize with platitudes, it’s true; it’s also impossible to encapsulate in any one comment by any one voice.

With all this backround in mind, first-time director László Nemes’s choice to make the Holocaust the subject of his debut has an undeniable ring of arrogance, and it would be equally arrogant to dismiss this criticism by citing Neme’s Serious Arthouse Credentials (his assistance of Béla Tarr on the latter’s The Man from London has been constantly overstated and is probably more a sexy connection than a defining precedent). Instead, what absolves the Nemes’s debut from jabs of self-importance is that it approaches its material with a pertinent and unique stylistic conceit: he puts the camera on a leash.

That invisible leash is no more than a few feet long, and it is attached (with a few very brief exceptions) to Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos — prisoners isolated from the rest of the camp so that they could secretly dispose of the bodies burned and gassed by the Nazis. As Saul moves through the camp, Nemes quickly emphasizes through a narrow aspect ratio and shallow focus that the image is largely defined by what Saul chooses not to see. Passing trucks, wailing prisoners, barking SS guards are confined Tamás Zányi’s enveloping soundtrack, and while it’s easier to identify and praise the pyrotechnics of Mátyás Erdély’s focused, extended handheld takes, Tamás Zányi’s expansive, crowded sound design is of equal importance to emphasizing the schism between what Saul chooses to see and what he is forced to hear: the final shot of the opening sequence is a flat angle of Saul leaning against a wall, but the soundtrack is filled with the screams of the naked victims of the gas chamber just a few inches of concrete away.

In any case, Son of Saul is ultimately more beholden to the possibilities of its formal dogma and its means of morally interfacing with history than it is to a coherent “plot,” though its story serves well enough: after this particular gassing, Saul recognizes a boy who still breathes for a moment, as his long-unseen son, and after the child is smothered to death, resolves to honor his boy with a proper Jewish burial, complete with a rabbi. What Saul lacks, however, is a willing rabbi, and so he moves about the camp following rumors and guesses, even stealing away from the Sonderkommando unit to which he’s restricted, while at the same time that unit pressures him to do his part in assisting an armed uprising the next morning.

On paper, the film’s atrocity-hopping narrative has the unconvincing ring of an amusement park ride, placing Saul in numerous near-death situations across Auschwitz as it displays the myriad circumstances for beatings and murders in the camp: gas chambers, wrong turns, escape attempts, fire pits, and mundane disagreements among laborers. Saul witnesses (or, more often, refuses to witness) all this and more in the space of a day, and his narrow escapes more often come by way of blind luck and arbitrary choices by his SS captors than they do from the clockwork logic and character decisions of a classical screenplay. But this is, to at least some extent the point of the film: amidst the irrational and ubiquitous murder, Saul’s survival is an act of denial, predicated as much on the indulgence of a fantastic obsession as it is on ignoring that it results in the deaths of many fellow Jews. Saul is lucky not to be counted among them, but so was everyone.

Another point in defense of Saul’s improbable itinerary is that Nemes is not making a documentary, nor is he merely trying to authentically express “what it was like,” an average day in the life of a Sonderkommando. His central aim seems not to be a journalistic exposé, but a self-conscious attempt to engage our own impressions of and reactions to the Holocaust. In every shot of the film there is a vibrating tension between where Saul chooses to train his focus and the genocide that both he and the audience know is occurring on the peripheral edges of his vision. He conceives his hopeless search for a rabbi to bury his son (whom we gradually suspect may be his son only by way of wishful thinking) with resolve equal to his fellow Sonderkommandos as they plot their uprising. He invents pitifully meaningless personal concerns to distract himself from the calamities at hand.

Nemes relies on the audience’s hindsight to craft the film’s political moral, which stresses the importance of living and advocating in the here and now, while at the same time empathizing with those to traumatized by injustice to respond or resist it. At the same time, he encourages a historical engagement and reassessment by means of his the subject reorientation of a leashed camera. The resultant vision of Auschwitz is at once restricted and panoptical. Son of Saul shows how miraculous a thing it was to survive at Auschwitz; in the same breath, it skirts romanticization by doubling down on the inevitable. Whatever flaws this bakes into it, this willingness to self-problematize isn’t just a merit of representations of the Holocaust in cinema — it’s a necessity.

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