Dec 18, 2015
Son Of Saul
Laszlo Nemes' impressive first feature attempts to bypass and even solve the problem that has plagued any fictionalized movie that has ever been made about the Holocaust. This particular atrocity presents a paradox: the more filmmakers try to faithfully recreate the horror of the extermination camps, the less authentic the movies look, the more artificial, and sometimes even offensive, their futile efforts at realism.
Human atrocities and genocides have been committed since time immemorial, but thanks to the Nazis' mania for recording everything with cameras, only the Holocaust has provided us with reams of documentary imagery of actual human depravity. Once we are familiar with those grainy black and white photographs of naked bodies piled high, of Nazis shooting women and children point blank, and emaciated creatures staring bug-eyed at the camera, no movie is ever able to convincingly recreate the horror of their plight and the unfathomable violence they faced. There is no dignity in the fictionalization of the Holocaust: Fake death, fake torture, evil Nazis, defenseless Jews: things get perilously close to pastiche, despite the best intentions. The Holocaust makes the conventions of drama seem ridiculous.
But Nemes tries to solve this problem. He attempts to use a different cinematic language with which to approach the unspeakable. He does this by shifting the point of view of the camera from its usual distant, omniscient perch to the perspective of one of the characters. The camera focuses on Saul (Geza Rohrig), a Jew who has been chosen to work in the Sonderkommandos, that is, to lead other Jews to their deaths, or face death himself. The camera follows him closely, trying to show us what he sees. There are no graceful crane shots, or even wide shots, the usual aesthetic detachment that gives us relief in the form of composed frames. Here, Saul's harried gaze sees only what is immediately in front of it, afraid to train itself on the periphery of the horror. This has the disturbing effect of the having the audience almost strive to see more, to try to find our physical bearings, and what the hell else is going on. We can't see much, but the details that we glimpse out of focus or in the corners of the frame (masses of people getting undressed, piles of discarded clothes, limp naked bodies, pools of blood on the floor) let our imaginations to fill in the blanks. This is far more powerful than the safe distance that meticulous period detail can make us feel. Nemes' approach raises these questions: Do we really need to see more? And if so, why do we want to see more?
We may not be able to see this hell too clearly, but Nemes makes sure that we hear it: waves of human wailing, the cacophony of Yiddish and Eastern European languages, the barking of German; once in a while, the horrifically preposterous sound of babies crying, random gunshots, an ever-present industrial rumble of a factory of death. These sounds are more harrowing than any images; we don't have time to defend ourselves from them.
At the same time, Nemes' approach, while intelligent and valiant, inevitably also calls attention to itself. There is something artificial in the handheld, if masterful, shaking of the camera and Nemes' insistence on keeping the point of view always on Saul. It makes us aware that there is a camera; that, for all the immersiveness of the experience, this is a fiction.
It is a simple story, an allegory. In the midst of trying to survive the next second of his existence, he finds a still breathing boy in the pile of gassed bodies, who is then promptly asphixiated by a Nazi (they were nothing if not efficient). Saul then desperately looks for a rabbi who will say Kaddish, the mourning prayer, for the boy, who he claims is his dead son. This single, insane act tries to restore a smidgen of civilization to a place where there is no time or room for it. It is not fuelled by piety: Saul is not very familiar with Jewish law (if he were, he would know that he can say the prayer himself and it has the same effect). He does it to hang on to the last thread of humanity he can find. He does this without emotion, but with ferocious focus.
Rohrig is not a professional actor and he looks numb most of the time. This is both realistic and frustrating, as he is not a particularly compelling presence. I'm sure this is on purpose. This is one carefully conceptualized movie, made with enormous skill, and perhaps Nemes wanted to steer clear from the emotional flourishes of a professional. Once you commit to relentless, quasi-documentary authenticity, however, the strain of imposing a dramatic structure starts to show. Drama requires poetic license. There is no room for poetic license in the Holocaust. You can't have it both ways.
Son Of Saul is a polarizing movie. Some find it exploitative. I admire Nemes' exploration of a different way to approach the subject. It still raises questions about our need to dramatize an unfathomable historic event which already happened in a way far worse than anybody can conjure. Nemes gets as close as possible to a dignified recreation without easy succor for the audience. Son of Saul is an intellectually rigorous film in that it understands the warped logic and reality of Auschwitz (a place where only death could flourish), but for the same reason, it is emotionally numbing. It does not summon as much pity and sadness as righteous anger. Beyond tragic, it is cruel, as it should be. Saul's quest seems less ennobling than mad and futile. In this topsy turvy hell where doctors make sure people die and everything is obliteration, Saul's fleeting glimpse of hope at the very end turns out to be a harbinger of more destruction. This is why, even as it doesn't completely succeed in melding the historical with the allegorical, Son Of Saul fares better than most in that it does not try to interject hope or mercy where there were none.