Upon its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “Son of Saul,” was simultaneously hailed as an instant masterpiece (Peter Bradshaw, in a five-star review in the “Guardian,” called it “a fictional drama with a gaunt, fierce kind of courage”) and decried as a moral affront (Manohla Dargis of the “New York Times” wrote that it was a “radically dehistoricized, intellectually repellent movie”). The polarized critical response is perhaps unsurprising, as fictional representations of the Holocaust tend to bring out the critic’s inner moralist, but negative reactions to “Son of Saul” have been particularly extreme (Stefan Grissemann, to cite one more example, derided it as an “exploitation film”). I think this is because “Son of Saul” is perhaps the first film to treat the Holocaust in exactly the way that contemporary audiences, seventy years removed from the actual events, regard the atrocities—with gape-mouthed, uncomprehending horror.
Director László Nemes provides no reassurances about people’s innate goodness, no tale of the triumph of the human spirit. He provides no historical context, no nuance. He provides, in essence, no sense that the Holocaust can possibly be understood. “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann, who has often scorned fictional representations of the Holocaust, surprised many when he praised “Son of Saul,” but his approval makes perfect sense in the context of his frequent pronouncements that the Holocaust cannot be explained. This is a film which seeks, above all, to make visceral the horrors of Auschwitz.
In tight, shallow-focus tracking shots, Nemes trains his camera on the face of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a sonderkommando in the Auschwitz camp. Saul is tasked with overseeing the extermination of his fellow Jews in the crematorium. In the film’s opening scene, we watch Saul as he helps wrangle a group of prisoners into the showers. The door closes, and we hear their screams as they are gassed to death. Saul’s face remains unmoved. It will turn out that one of the victims is Saul’s son. With the help of a camp doctor, Saul desperately searches the camp for a rabbi who will agree to give the child a proper burial.
Saul’s mission may seem quixotic or, in the context of the death camps, even idiotic. As he is horse-trading and placing his own life at risk, the other sonderkommandos are planning an uprising against the guards (just as they actually did in October 1944). But in Saul’s story there is a fundamental struggle to maintain his humanity. He knows that he is marked for death; he is, in many ways, dead already. But the funeral ritual, as Slavoj Žižek once wrote, is “the act defining the very emergence of man.” The Holocaust continues to represent the height of humanity’s evil, the closest thing man has yet made to Hell on Earth. And Nemes depicts it as such. Auschwitz is rendered as an abject realm of furnace, flame, ash, and corpse. Nazi guards are depicted as more devil than man, gleeful purveyors of death and humiliation. Saul’s quest, however foolhardy it may be, is a refusal to submit to the primary directive of the camp, that the prisoner relinquish his humanity. As Primo Levi wrote in his survivor’s account of Auschwitz, “[T]o survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last—the power to refuse our consent.”
Nemes’s directing is virtuosic. Shooting in academy-ratio 35mm, he keeps the focus so tight on Saul that everything around him is blurred. Röhrig’s steely, unchanging expression is a blank canvas on which we can project our own deep emotions. He is, despite his idiosyncratic quest, a surrogate for all of us who were not there in the camps, an outsider (“Ausländer” translates to “foreigner”), a man who rejects, in the only way he can, what is being done to him. Killings happen frequently—almost constantly—but they are committed outside frame or indistinctly in the blur of the background. (The sounds of death, however, are upsettingly vivid.) This is a clever means of disguising the artifice of Nemes’s reenactments while also keeping our attention focused on Saul. These atrocities mean nothing, Nemes suggests, without someone to bear witness to them.
Where Nemes goes wrong is in his extreme narrative compression. “Son of Saul” permits no space for thought or meditation. It is too busy whisking us from one atrocity to the next. In Saul’s journey through the camp, he seems to encounter every major aspect of the Auschwitz death machine, from the crematorium to the barracks to the mass graves to Mengele’s lab to a Nazi commander’s office. And, in the end, he is also swept up in the Sonderkommando Revolt. All within the space of less than a day. The effect is like a whirlwind tour of Hell. It’s gut-wrenching, but it also smells of contrivance.
And, anyway, is horror enough? At this late date, and notwithstanding Lanzmann’s injunctions, is it not time for our Holocaust dramas to start asking, “Why?” As historian Timothy Snyder has written, “The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” The kernel of this moral dilemma lies in Saul’s role as a sonderkommando, but the question of the sonderkommandos’ moral culpability (a hotly debated topic at least since Hannah Arendt raised the issue in her writings on the Eichmann trial some fifty years ago) is brushed aside by the narrative emphasis. By identifying solely with Saul, and by failing to more fully dramatize the tension between Saul and the revolting sonderkommandos, Nemes leaves these difficult moral questions frustratingly unasked.