Editor’s Notes: Son of Saul open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Christmas Day in 35mm.
I studied the Sonderkommandos in my undergraduate years, mainly by reading chapters of Primo Levi’s “The Drowned and the Saved”. In part, the book explored how the Sonderkommandos were the Nazi regime’s attempt to delude the Jews of their victim status. The Sonderkommandos were entirely Jewish prisoners, who assisted at the crematoriums in the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were functionaries-of-a-sort – forced labourers for the larger, pervasive Nazi bureaucratic machine – and the intention was to make the Sonderkommandos feel complicit in the destruction and desecration of their own people. At a time when humanity ceased to exist, the Nazis used this method of cruel punishment to deceptively blur the lines of persecutor and persecuted, and strip the prisoners of all dignity and victimhood.
At 107 minutes, Son of Saul overwhelms the senses, particularly on an auditory level . . .
Now, a film has released on this very subject: László Nemes’s Son of Saul. I only wish it tackled the moral complexity of the Sonderkommandos, as opposed to the first-person style of filmmaking that affects a kind of visceral dramatic intensity. In spite of its monstrosities, the story becomes an entertainment – viewers are meant to get a rush from the film’s proceedings – emphasizing audience participation over character identification. I kept thinking of Michael Haneke’s musings in the Hollywood Reporter about Holocaust movies, where he attested that it was “unspeakable” to try and draw suspense out of this heinous historical event.
However, my views are not that definite. There is value, perhaps historically, in trying to depict the desperate urgency of a concentration camp prisoner. The reason being is this type of depiction avoids the broader perspective of conventional historical dramas and provokes a more direct, firsthand intimacy. After all, the Holocaust was originally experienced through the eyes of individuals – the poor, the powerful, the victims, the perpetrators – and only compartmentalized in its wake as a broader series of dates, facts, and statistics for historians to scrutinize. In a sense, Son of Saul tries to simulate a primary account of one man’s immediate experiences.
Saul (a stoic Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian prisoner working in the crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a Sonderkommando, Saul has greater liberty to wander areas of the camp grounds, giving him more opportunities to prove himself an active protagonist. In the opening sequence, Saul is on duty in the barracks, where hundreds of prisoners undress for their “showers”. Since Saul is bound by duty to this place, the sequence comes off as terrifyingly routine because, for him, it is. He cannot say anything to the prisoners and must stick to his job. This approach produces a clinical sense of helplessness that some viewers may find repellent – especially when the cries of the gas chamber victims are intensified and built up to a “dramatic” cut to black.
Nemes depicts the Holocaust’s inhumanity through a very narrow field of vision: the camera is suspended on the back of Saul, our peripheral vision is drained by a shallow depth of field, and the surrounding victims are made into an amorphous blur. Much like Emmanuel Lubezki’s extensive takes in Children of Men‘s uprising scenes, Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s choreographs the camera to Saul’s movements, as if it is fastened to his limbs and joints.
Son of Saul is a work of questionable merit. Alas, it is another one of those movies that is more interesting to talk about than it is to experience.
Regardless of where your scruples lie, it is difficult to deny the daring of Nemes’s visual style. The first-time director is trying to interpret – recreate? – an immediacy that no hardcover history textbook can invoke. His myopic framing restricts the film’s focus to Saul, making it strictly about his struggle for survival and rendering the other prisoners merely objects in the frame. This is where Son of Saul may be anathema to some: it is a solipsistic interpretation of mass murder, meaning it is restricted to the mind of one individual and unfeeling toward the persecuted collective. Our sympathies are limited to the will of one man, turning the surrounding chaos into – literally – background noise.
Speaking of which, Son of Saul’s sound design is one of the film’s strongest qualities. Bellows, cries, explosions, and gunfire thunder from all corners of the theatre, remarkably mixed and layered by the sound team. Like Saul, viewers will feel accosted from all sides, as if their world is closing in on them. At 107 minutes, Son of Saul overwhelms the senses, particularly on an auditory level (the film was also shot and projected in 35mm, at a 1:1 aspect ratio, with the scratches, cigarette burns and all). When the film climaxes at a revolt (based on an actual uprising by Sonderkommandos in 1944), the soundscape heads into overdrive, overpowering the speakers and almost triggering a fight or flight response in its audience.
I write “almost” because, in spite of these augmentations of sound, I was a little worn out at the film’s finale and disconnected from its overall dramatic purpose. Supposedly, the narrative drive is in Saul’s mission to find a rabbi and give a proper burial to a young boy whom Saul claims is his son. This plot device quickly wears thin, as Nemes’s visual style is so spatially restrictive, it fails to frame character relationships and important dramatic exposition that would give this story’s meaning added depth. Instead, the movie unfolds in forward motion – Saul’s motion – and does not allow the audience to relax, process information, and let an emotional or intellectual response sink into our hearts and skulls.
Perhaps this choice is by design. After all, Son of Saul exists in a school of filmmaking outside of classical narrative. It is a type of school that crafts story and perspective through a vignetted string of tracking shots. It dramatizes incident “in the moment” as opposed to “in the bigger picture”. Watching the film, I recalled the films of another Hungarian filmmaker, Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies, Satantango). Tarr constructs his narratives with spiralling tracking shots to convey the cyclical nature of life and the repetitive routines of small, cloistered groups of people. His technique assumes a hypnotic, spiritual quality that Nemes’s lacks. Interesting post-viewing discovery: Nemes was actually a pupil of Tarr’s.
I remain mixed about Son of Saul more on cinematic than moral grounds. Some critics have called the movie “courageous”, while others have deemed it “exploitative”. Is it possible that both attributes inform each other? Is the movie’s courage borne out of its feat to portray the Holocaust through a kind of unflinching single-mindedness that, in turn, comes off exploitative and dismissive towards the hardships of many Holocaust victims? Is Son of Saul’s raw urgency – its dramatic impetus, really – the very thing that makes it, in the words of Haneke, “unspeakable”?
Son of Saul is a work of questionable merit. Alas, it is another one of those movies that is more interesting to talk about than it is to experience. You will be overwhelmed, for better or worse. In the end, this critic is left to wonder: should that be the appropriate response?
Son of Saul has stabbing moments of brilliance, but is undercut by the relentlessness of its own technique. The questionable part of the film is more the execution of its style than the intended effect. While I respect Nemes for tackling a new approach to the horrors of the Holocaust, too much on a narrative level is under-developed for this formal experiment to be deemed a total breakthrough or success.