Son of Saul I

Son of Saul I

by

Howard Adelman

Watch this film, and you must watch it, BEFORE reading the review below. I wrote a reader of my blog of Hungarian background who now lives in Germany the following note:

Have you seen Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes and co-authored with Clara Royer that won an academy award as Best Foreign Film as well as a Golden Globe in the same category? Stop reading if you have not seen the film and wait until you have. If you have seen it, is there a difference in watching and listening if you know Hungarian? What did you think of the film? Is the “son” real, legitimate or illegitimate, or an imaginary construct of Saul Ausländer? What is the significance, if any, that the young boy was still breathing after being gassed? Does Saul deep down know his Greek rabbi was a fake or does it even matter whether he knew or not as he obsessively pursued his self-appointed mission of giving the boy a proper Jewish burial? What did you think of the tension between picture-taking as witnessing, rebellion and adherence to religious ritual, especially since all three options fail? I have still not yet been able to make any sense of the order of events in the film. Do you have any idea?

I saw the film for the first time on the plane on my way back from Israel and that was probably the worst context to see the movie, that is, on a plane and not because I was returning from Israel.

I would appreciate any other comments you might have such as the cinematography of the constant close-ups on Saul and the vague sense of background, on the enormous importance of sound which seemed almost as important as the cinematography.

All the best.

Howard

She replies below. Her response is excellent. I now have no need of writing a review though the answer to my key question did not satisfy me because I tended to take an opposite interpretation of futility rather than affirmation of life – that life-affirming gestures are themselves madness when the world has gone mad, especially when the gesture is so obsessive and driven by fantasy. The film deservedly won its awards, but for such an accomplished film, it is absolutely surprising how few people that I know and who seek out great films have seen it. The subject matter of sonderkommandos was perhaps enough to turn them (and me) off. But it is a Must Watch film.

Hi again,

Prompted by your questions, I promptly set out to find a copy of the Son of Saul movie. It is available for online watching, but purchasing it as a DVD or blue ray won’t be possible before July 21 (at least in Germany). My internet connection is not very strong and so I did not think I would be able to watch the whole movie, but, in fact I managed to watch it, in its entirety, a pirated version with Chinese subtitles (!), online. Here is my immediate, first-impressions feedback:

I have never seen this subject matter filmed quite in this manner: it is an acoustic and visual masterpiece. It definitely should not be watched on a plane ride, with cheap disposable earphones, on a small screen, munching stale peanuts from a crackling cellophane bag. Not sure who got what prize for it, but those responsible for the sound effects alone deserve all sorts of accolades. Ideally, it should be watched in a theatre with state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound…

It does not matter whether or not one understands the language of the subtitles, and it also does not matter if one understands the Babelian cacophony of the many languages spoken by the prisoners against an ongoing, horrifying background of German commands screamed, dogs barking, shots exploding, the dull noise of random blows on people’s backs and heads, metal doors banging shut, the constant whoosh of huge flames ablaze, chaos, and people screaming in agony: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, French, or German whispered in surreptitiously hurried sentence fragments, the voices hoarse from the air polluted by the constant presence of death, poisonous gas, smoke, flames, and ashes. It does not matter that the main character happens to be Hungarian like the makers of the film: he could be from any nation; his name is, tellingly – Ausländer (foreigner).

It is hard to understand the dialogue alone acoustically. I think this was done on purpose: it gives you, the 21st century viewer sitting in your comfy armchair, a bewildering, frightening, physical, first-person experience at the gut level of what it must have meant to be thrown into this hellish environment, literally and figuratively not being able to grasp what was happening around you and to you (prisoners got shot on the spot simply because they did not understand the German commands, and did not remove their cap in time – I always wondered about the added stress the multilinguality of the environment must have caused). Other Holocaust movies tell a well-scripted story to the interested bystander, accompanied by sentimental violin solos (which normally I am a sucker for): this one pushes you physically into the middle of hell and bangs the door shut behind you. There is no escape here.

Visually, too, the movie does not narrate: it grabs you and forces you to be in the middle of it, peering through half-opened doors, being pushed and shoved amidst panicky crowds, lining up for the roll call, amidst vague shadows backlit by fire and shrouded in smoke, working feverishly on horrific, mindless tasks, must not stop, must not speak, must not think, just keep shoveling, sorting mountains of effects, scrubbing floors, dragging bodies, feeding the fire, and most of all, avoid calling attention to yourself.

The images are blurry (sometimes repetitive, just like the real daily routine of the Sonderkommando), except for the close-ups of the main character and his occasional interlocutors; your grasp of the events as a viewer is also blurry. You keep asking yourself: What is going on? What is happening? What are these people doing? Where are they going? And again, I think this is done on purpose: rather than hammering into your brain the horror with the sledgehammer-like force of explicit, meanwhile sadly familiar images, you get only glimpses of it, which is the more alarming as you can never quite be in the know of what is happening and why. And even when you get a glimpse, you cannot quite believe you are seeing what you are seeing: you become one of the new arrivals, and don’t have time to think it through; you are just thrown from one scene to the other, never knowing how it will end. Life is precarious, and death can become yours at any moment. This is precisely how it must felt to be dragged into a camp. This movie affects you like music: viscerally, not intellectually. You feel like being carried helplessly by the wild torrent of pointless, industrial-scale killing. How could have one gone on doing this if one had clearly understood what they were forced to do? The blurred background imagery is a perfect visual depiction of one’s possible mental state in such a context.

That prisoners, especially members of the Sonderkommando, “enjoying special privileges” for a limited time in exchange for their services would engage in picture taking and religious ritual is a symptom of maintaining “normalcy” even under the most abnormal circumstances. (And in fact, photos, drawings and diaries made by prisoners were found after the war, and religious ritual was adhered to as much as it was possible. There were philosophical discussions and poetry readings held. Gustav Mahler’s sister organized an orchestra and was very tough with them and criticized them for not being good enough – like it mattered… Did these attempts failed, just because the people performing them died? No, because the survivors reporting them are witnesses of the survival of humanity). The abnormal becomes the new normal. The normal human brain is designed to get “accustomed” to standard repetitive stimuli, and the synapses will fire only when something new and unusual stimulates them. This innate “attention deficit” has a definite survival value. The expressionless face of Saul reflects these comatose synapses, only lighting up for one purpose: the proper burial of the boy. That gesture is his poetry reading. It also does not matter if it is his own boy, a boy he would have loved to have, or a total stranger: the boy is the embodiment of his Mentschlichkeit.

There is also another quasi musical aspect to the film: a forever growing crescendo, acoustically, visually and in terms of the sequence of events, moving from a mechanical well-organized daily routine of gassing masses of people through the frenetic dialogue between the SS and the Sonderkommando about not being able to manage the volume, towards the uncontrollable chaos of burning the victims alive in that humongous fire at the pits (one of the rare images with a strong colour, other than the constant grey, black and brown) and the shots and explosions during the uprising: things really get out of hand (which, we know, is historically accurate – but we are not regaled with historic facts, instead, we are made to feel like we are among the crowd pushed and shoved and killed).

In contrast to the crescendo from a chillingly well-coordinated routine to uncontrollable chaos, there is one constant throughout the movie: Saul’s quest to give a proper burial to the boy. The boy’s survival under the circumstances is miraculous (although we heard of survivors crawling out from under several layers of dead bodies from a pit they were shot into, and possibly some people were also found alive after the gas). That the boy is killed by the doctor does not at all diminish this fact. That murder is predictable (part of the camp routine – so to speak), but that it was possible to survive the gas, survive the camp, survive the entire Holocaust is an idea we must believe in; we must hold on to this belief, it is what gives us hope that life is precious and worth living, no matter what. It is a fundamentally Jewish credo, put to fiery test throughout history and never given up or forgotten, despite all. This life-affirming attitude of the Jewish people is quite contrary to that of other people dismissing the value of earthly life of the here and now, and positively extolling the virtue of death, and of martyrdom as the key to that dubious other realm (Paradise and 72 virgins notwithstanding).

The boy is a metaphor of this life-affirming idea, in the most unlikely context, but precisely because of it. During the many close-ups on Saul, his face remains expressionless, just a part of the machinery he is forced to submit himself to; the first time we see a hint of gentleness and love on his face and hear him breathing heavily is when he lifts the shroud of the boy he has already thought lost. We then see a close-up of his back, while he is standing there, gazing at the boy’s wax-like face, and there is pain in that slightly crouched, much beaten and tormented back of the man the first time. Later, we see the gentlest gesture of his hands washing the body of the boy.

That the would-be rabbi is not a rabbi for he does not even know how to say Kaddish, does not make a difference. Real rabbis during particular hardship were known to give permission for modifying the rules, understanding that the intention to follow the rule may be superior to the actual ability to do so in reality. See the differentiation between accidental versus purposeful breaking the law in this Sabbath’s Torah portion: the penalty is lesser for the former.

During the climactic uprising, Saul manages to smuggle the body outside (as he comes up and outside from some basement we see a perfect blue sky in the door frame the first time (a quasi-reverse image of the victims filing down the stairs to the gas-chambers) and the subsequent images show the green of trees, the river, the sky, outdoors, freedom, the first time after all the grey of smoke and ash. We very much want to believe in this moment that he will succeed in his quest. Saul attempts to give the body a proper burial as much as it is humanly possible under the circumstances. He could just drop the whole project and run. Only the appearance of his mates, with the noise of the pursuers makes him move. He drags the body with him into the water, but accidentally loses it while struggling across the river with his mate (the real rabbi). You just know he will not go under, martyr-like with the body (that would be nauseatingly kitschy): His own struggle against drowning becomes the new metaphor for life. They survive initially (again, by sheer miracle) and hide in a hut in the forest. The peasant boy, accidentally finding them and standing there staring brings the first smile on Saul’s face. We breathe a cautious sigh of relief seeing that the boy does not tell on them (as you would expect in the Hollywood version of the story). He is being pushed out of the way by the approaching SS and runs for his life. He runs for LIFE which goes on with him and his generation, even if we hear (but don’t see) the predictable shots finishing off the escapees.

Even if individual attempts failed, life itself did not. Somebody said poetry after Auschwitz was not possible. This great movie, despite the horrifying experience watching it is, assures us that not only poetry and great art, but life as such, is possible, even after Auschwitz.

Terrific depiction of the film!

With the help of Alex Zisman

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