“Son of Saul” and the Ungraspable Horrors of Auschwitz
Review by Richard Brody december 30, 2015 at The New Yorker
To the extent that it’s a gloss on ideas from Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and his later films, László Nemes’s first feature, “Son of Saul” (which opened December 25th), is a revealing alignment of symbolic gestures. To the extent that it’s an immediate cinematic experience, it’s a daring but tasteless jumble of stylistic flourishes and dramatic intentions.
“Son of Saul” takes place almost entirely in Auschwitz-Birkenau, late in the Second World War—and that timing matters. Its protagonist is Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig), a Jew who has been deported from his native Hungary, from which the mass deportation of Jews only occurred in 1944. It was when Hungarian Jews arrived that the pace of murder in Auschwitz greatly accelerated—and when the Soviet Army was rumored to be approaching. In the camp—which is both a concentration camp for slave labor and an extermination camp—Saul is a member of a Sonderkommando, a squad of Jews ordered by the German overlords to facilitate the killing of other Jews. At the start of the film, Saul, with this group, ushers Jews from the dressing (or, rather, undressing) rooms where they leave their clothing and valuables, into what are called showers and are actually gas chambers. Then the Sonderkommando collects their valuables for the Germans, discards the clothing, and removes the corpses (called “pieces” by the Germans) from the gas chambers.
While emptying the gas chamber of bodies, Saul sees a boy who is still breathing; the boy dies moments thereafter, but his body is taken by a camp doctor for autopsy—and Saul, visiting the doctor (who turns out also to be a prisoner), tells him that the boy is his son and that he wants to spend a few minutes with the body. What Saul actually wants is something more drastic and seemingly impossible: he wants to take the body and give it a proper burial. Moreover, for that burial he needs a rabbi, and, making use of his position as a Sonderkommando (which allows him to move not quite freely but at least widely throughout the concentration camp), Saul obsessively searches among Jewish deportees to find one.
But, early in his quest, he happens upon other Sonderkommando members who are organizing an armed uprising to destroy the gas chambers, and they recruit him to that cause. Though Saul never makes his reasoning clear (once, he explains, “I have to eat”), he seems to join the uprising neither from commitment nor to save himself but to win his colleagues’ aid in his efforts to bury his son, and to gain the measure of mobility, as a part of their plot, that will help him to do so.
Saul becomes an accidental rebel (and, as it turns out, a rather incompetent and unreliable one), but that’s beside the point. He’s not really a character—he’s a blank—but, in the few days of action that the movie presents, he’s the union of two (or, rather, three) crucial ideas that arise from Lanzmann’s epochal film. The first is the overturning of the demeaning cliché that Jews went to their death passively, “like sheep.” (“Son of Saul” evokes the monstrous deception to which the deportees were subjected.) The second takes that notion further: some Jews actively and violently resisted the Nazi death regime. Third, members of the Sonderkommando weren’t collaborators; they acted to save their lives, they were subjected to the same threats of murder as other Jewish inmates, and they made use of their position and their slender grasp on survival in order to bear witness to (and possibly to resist) the German machine of murder.
These themes are all prominent in “Shoah.” One of the noteworthy aspects of Lanzmann’s discussion with Jewish survivors of death camps is his emphasis on armed resistance. He speaks at length with organizers of the actual revolt in Auschwitz, and “Shoah” concludes with a detailed consideration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Then, in 2001, Lanzmann, working with an interview that he did in 1979 but didn’t include in “Shoah,” made a separate feature—“Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 P.M.”—about the uprising in that camp.
There’s no suggestion in “Shoah” that Sonderkommando members—several of whom are interviewed in the film—are in any way collaborators. They are presented as victims and as heroes, who (as one former Sonderkommando, Filip Müller, says) were given the sacred order to bear witness by those who were being ushered to their death.
That very idea, the bearing of witness, lends Nemes’s distinctive aesthetic its greatest power. Nemes relies on long and sinuous travelling shots, closely and insistently following Saul in his paces even as the action around him changes drastically, from calm to frenzied and back. Nemes’s images mainly stick close to Saul, showing the back of his head as he walks, capturing his wide-eyed and distant gaze when his face is seen but showing little of what Saul actually sees. The events in the camp—the roundup of deportees, the hauling of corpses, the shovelling of ashes and powdered bones, even the uprising itself—are filmed mostly in the interstices between Saul’s head and the edges of the frame, mainly out of focus, fragmentarily and impressionistically.
The movie is filled with looming closeups of Saul as he looks off-screen at horrors that defy comprehension; similar closeups of the back of his head suggest a similar gaze at the very events that his presence shields from the lens. Nemes renounces the act of total and transparent representation—he films Saul’s experiences and observations as if he can’t fully represent them dramatically by actors on sets. The enormity of the events defies dramatization without utterly eluding it. Yet the muffling of the image suggests another mode of transmission—the word, in the future tense. The events that Saul sees and the actions that he takes will survive, if they survive at all, through Saul’s eventual verbal testimony—if, in fact, Saul survives (no spoilers here). The fullest access to what Nemes doesn’t and won’t show clearly will be through the culled word—will be when Saul, or other members of a Sonderkommando, speaks with Lanzmann, and when Lanzmann composes a film on the basis of that word.
Many of the events in “Son of Saul” correspond closely to testimony in “Shoah.” The encouraging speech of a German officer telling Jews being pushed toward so-called showers that they’ve been brought there to work, that the camp needs craftspeople of all sorts, and that they’ll be given appropriate work assignments after they get their shower and a meal is modeled closely on an account by Müller in Lanzmann’s film. (It’s one of the exemplary sequences of “Shoah.”) Many intricate details of the uprising in Auschwitz (even including a reference to the summoning of one particular Kapo, named Shloime) match those in “Shoah”; other elements of Nemes’s film (such as the shoveling of powdered bone into a river) come from an account by Simon Srebnik in “Shoah” about the Chelmno death camp. The relative mobility enjoyed by locksmiths (such as Saul) in Auschwitz emerges in testimony in “Shoah.”
Above all, the moral and narrative core of the film—Saul’s quest to bury his son—is found in Lanzmann’s film as well, in two parts: first, the account of Mordechaï Podchlebnik, a Sonderkommando in Chelmno, who unloaded the bodies of his own wife and children from a van in which they had been gassed; then, the historian Raul Hilberg’s reference to a woman who gave her husband a proper burial in the Warsaw Ghetto, saying, “This, to Czerniaków” (Adam Czerniaków, the Jewish official who was compelled by the Germans to administer the Ghetto) “—this simple episode—was the ultimate of virtue.”
Yet that ultimate virtue is given an altogether different twist by Nemes—one that’s not prominent in “Shoah” but that emerges prominently in Lanzmann’s most recent film, “The Last of the Unjust,” from 2013. That film is centered on Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi who was forced by the Germans to serve as the “Elder of the Jews” in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Because Murmelstein was a rabbi, Lanzmann addressed, far more directly than he had done in “Shoah,” the specifically religious and liturgical side of Judaism—which was being exterminated along with the Jews of Europe, and which would also survive with the survivors.
“Shoah”—a film that, though conjuring death, is centered on discussions with survivors—evokes the reappropriation of violence by Jews facing extermination. Nemes considers this reappropriation both admiringly and skeptically. He looks at the modicum of freedom that prisoners found in the margins of Auschwitz, and compares the passionate militarists who make use of it to rebel with Saul’s passion for his sacred mission. The character of Saul is the fusion of Jewish violence—accidental, reluctant, insufficient—with Jewish “virtue,” rooted in unshakable faith and devotion. The course of events in the film also suggests that religious devotion and warlike action may well come into mutual conflict, that the devout will turn to the martial only with the greatest reluctance, and that the most effective fighters aren’t likely to be bound by pious feelings. (Also, one odd detail—Saul’s son is said to be the issue of an adulterous affair; it’s as if Saul were redeeming his mischief in carefree times with his devout dedication in extremis.)
Nemes’s film tempers and humanizes the metaphysical radicalism of Lanzmann’s cinema. In the face of Lanzmann’s existential void and moral paradoxes, Nemes offers a tale of ordinary decency applied in indecent circumstances. Placing Saul’s labors as a Sonderkommando and his engagement in the uprising equally under the sign of paternal duty and Judaic piety, Nemes smooths over the confrontational challenges of Lanzmann’s work. Converting Lanzmann’s absolutes of death and life into the general terms of Judaism as an ethical culture, Nemes—for all the horrors he evokes—offers comfortingly cautionary lessons for modern times.
Despite Nemes’s obstinate, bold, and original cinematographic premise, “Son of Saul”—unlike “Shoah”—lacks beauty. The construction of the images, with their proximity to Saul and out-of-focus backgrounds, comes off more as a strategy than as an experience. There’s nothing in “Son of Saul” to evoke the multiple levels of thought, memory, and imagination that Lanzmann achieves with far sparer means. Instead, Nemes clutters the film with dramatic elements that are all too familiar and all too mollifying. The timely arrival of off-screen voices and noises that illustrate intentionally vague stagings, the portentous fades and cuts that stoke suspense at the price of knowledge and insight squeeze the exceptional action into the cheap anticipations of an unexceptional thriller.
“Son of Saul” is most valuable for its attention to the themes and ideas in Lanzmann’s work. Nemes admirably re-instigates discussion of the awe-inspiring, complex, and yet unassimilated experience of Lanzmann’s films—and does so perhaps even more discerningly than much written criticism does. Yet without “Shoah” “Son of Saul” would be meaningless; in the light of “Shoah,” “Son of Saul”—though useful and provocative—is, nonetheless, nearly superfluous.