Son of Saul III

Son of Saul III


Howard Adelman

Three blogs on the same film! What more is there to say? I begin with one tardy response that I received after the second blog was sent out.

I imagine that you waited so long to see Son of Saul for the same reason I did. It seemed inconceivable that the film industry would have anything ne to say about the Holocaust; why throw myself into a needless depression? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? I finally saw it at the TIFF a while after it opened and found that it took us into a new layer of evil and raised new questions.
Son of Saul takes us into the horror that other films only allude to – the engine room of the CAPOs and SonderKommando, the gas chambers themselves, the heart of darkness, and the diabolical method of forcing Jews to be collaborators in their own destruction.

If I were to write a philosophical essay on Son of Saul, I would stress two themes.
1. The director’s reversal of Arendt’s” banality of evil”. Arendt, who invented this concept, uses it (wrongly, I believe) to dehumanize the perpetrators. In Son of Saul, it is the victims who are engulfed in it. Saul goes through his routines as though he were a factory labourer. He seems slightly bored, shoving bodies into gas chambers and then retrieving them. The perpetrators, on the other hand, are normal brutes, sadists and tyrants. No profundities are necessary to describe them.
2. He illustrates the concept of resistance, as the determination to rescue the human from the anti-human This is the meaning of the main story line of the film, Saul’s determination to give his son a proper burial. a concept that is at the heart of Emil Fackenheim’s account of the Holocaust. Your German correspondent illustrates these moments of resistance very beautifully. But there is an ambiguity. He chooses his act of spiritual resistance against the possibility of joining a scheme of armed resistance. What are we to make of this?
Much to think about.

This comment is in line with the first pro-humanism interpretation of the film that I sent out by my Hungarian correspondent currently living in Germany, but probes the issue on a deeper, more philosophical level. Second, it assumes that the boy was Saul’s real son. Is there a connection between taking the son to be a constructed fantasy and a pessimistic perspective on the assertion of humanity in the face of utility versus the assumption of a real son and viewing the film as a statement of hope for the human spirit?

Before probing both those questions, I now want to include a series of reviews of the film in Germany, most viewing the movie as kitsch rather than a great piece of art. Again, these were forwarded to me by my Hungarian reader living in Germany.

Népszabadság is a major left-leaning Hungarian newspaper, 50% owned by Bertelsmann AG (Germany). In its online version I found an article written in Hungarian by Hanna Ongierth, published March 14, 2016, that summarizes some of the write-ups by critics of major German newspapers about the movie Son of Saul. I do not have time to read all the original articles she is summarizing here, but I thought you might be interested in learning what the leading media in Germany wrote about the movie, so I translated it for you. At the end of my translation of her article I included links to the original write-ups, if someone wants to read them. The title of her article, a quote from one of the write-ups, summarizes the overall judgement of German critics:

“The Son of Saul: nauseating”

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning film, The Son of Saul, opened March 10 in Germany. It has been hotly anticipated; every major newspaper wrote about it. They did not mince words: “lager-kitsch”, “ghost train”, “pornography” were some of the opinions it received. But there was also a critic who considered it a “poignantly great work of art”.

Verena Lueken, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung film critic, wore a darkly gleaming gray suit talking about the film on the paper’s online video. Her outfit was to underline her sharp features and stern judgment. Whenever she likes a movie, she wears bright colours. In an unwavering tone, she explained the traditional manner Holocaust themes are to be dealt with. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoa issued a tacit ban on the pictorial representations of death camps. And since this circle of fire has not faded at all during the last 30 years, Auschwitz-Birkenau is still not to serve as a venue for fictional works.

“László Nemes is trying to be awfully clever” – Lueken interprets the imagery of Son of Saul – “by showing and not showing things explicitly. Nauseating: Exploitative violence, pornography” – she sputters her curses darkly. “Lurid – all just calculated for effect,” she says. In the columns of her paper, she calls the director an arrogant creep, and this because he knows that he is touching on taboos, but decides not to knock them down. The Son of Saul fuels the same lies as Schindler’s List when it claims that, even in horror, there is room for humanity, and in hell for dignity, and that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria. This one is the same old lager-kitsch as Steven Spielberg’s film. But at least – Geza Röhrig is a great actor.

Jan Schulz Ojala, the Tagesspiegel critic would agree with those who say it would have been better for Nemes to shoot a movie about the Battle at the Don River [the Hungarian army suffered terrible losses on behalf of Germany due to the overwhelming power of the Soviets in 1942-43; BG], or anything else, as long as he left the Holocaust well alone. Ojala’s greatest problem is not that he does not think The Son of Saul is a good movie, but that Claude Lanzmann thinks it is so. “This movie is nothing but a series of dramatic scenes, typical for an action movie – otherwise it is an average thriller. Not like the Shoah, where the silences between the phrases uttered by the survivors are the most dramatic. In comparison, The Son of Saul is like a ghost train in an amusement park – by the end of the ride, the shivers stop.

According to Susan Vahabzadehnek, the Süddeutsche Zeitung critic, taking a quick ride through the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sitting in your comfy armchair is like getting your picture taken with the starving children of Africa on a cruise. The viewer cannot be more than a rubbernecking bystander – a thoroughly passive tourist. Therefore, The Son of Saul is no more than a pornography of pain. Besides the horrors of the KZ are impossible to portray, so why even try it?

The Feuilleton editor of Die Welt, Elmar Krekeler has a wholly different opinion. He intensely dislikes the 107 minutes spent on watching the movie. Not because he does not consider it a good movie. But it hurts as much as to even think about it as it was painful to watch it. He disagrees with the label “ghost train” as on that he would love to take another ride. This film, however, engulfed and crushed him. And in the end it vomited him out as a different person. “We all should watch it – he writes – so that we know our task: to shape the world in such a way that there is no need in it for such works as The Son of Saul “.

“How can one demand realism from a feature film? And, anyway, what’s the point of comparing it to a documentary film?”- asks Hannah Pilarczyk, in Spiegel Online. Rather, one should ask whether The Son of Saul adds anything new to the cinematic narrative built around the Holocaust. “It certainly does!” she writes, by breaking the well-known cliché of the “passive Jew” and by complementing the best possible way the existing series of works. In her view, it would be a big mistake to label it as “lager-kitsch” and then yet another time end up with Lanzmann’s work as the only solution.

Anti-Schindler’s List
Claude Lanzmann, the now 90-year-old French director, created the alpha and omega of Holocaust films in 1985, the Shoa. In his nine-and-a-half-hour long work, he let survivors talk, showing locations; however, none of the corpses. “No; I did not use archival materials. Firstly, because this sort of thing is not my thing, and, secondly, because such materials do not exist. And if they did, and I had stumbled upon them, I would have burned them,” he declared in 1994 in Le Monde. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List is a feature film, considered by many as the “Hollywoodification” of the Holocaust. Lanzmann has also had a low opinion of him; he thought Spielberg’s work “trivialized the Jewish tragedy”. But Lanzmann is pleased to note that Nemes “does not try to show death”. Although Lanzmann missed the first 20 minutes of the movie, yet he thinks of it as the “anti-Schindler’s List,” and he is satisfied that “the director did not want to put the Holocaust on the screen, just the short story of the Sonderkommando.”

Original articles:
Spiegel online:

So there you have it. Is the film an anti-Schindler anti-Hollywood movie that does not trivialize the Holocaust because it does not focus on death, or does it do the very opposite of Lanzmann’s dictum by tacitly breaking the ban on the pictorial representations of death? Does it break the cliché of the “passive Jew,” invert Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” and engulf and crush you so that you emerge after watching it a different person.? Or, on the other hand, is the film just an average thriller based on a series of dramatic scenes like an action movie, a nauseating and lurid film of violence as an exercise in exploiting the pornography of pain, that, even in horror, claims that there is room in hell for humanity and dignity? Is the movie an exercise in lager-kitsch expressing the shallow sentiment that hope will not dissipate in the smoke of the crematoria? Or is the film great art because it can elicit such a wide variety of reactions?

I think the movie is indeed a great piece of art, but not because there are so many varied and often opposite reactions. It does NOT deal with shallow sentiment, and if some find that it expresses the view than even in hell there can be human dignity, this is far from shallow sentimentality. I myself thought the film had as dour a view about the world as the actor/poet who plays Saul, that in a crushing authoritarian environment of mass murder, rebellion, witnessing and escaping into a fantasy longing for religious nostalgia in trying even to giver youthful hope a decent burial, all may be of equal value and equally futile as different exercises in resistance.

But the film is definitely not lurid; it is not a thriller – I was never on the edge of my seat and there were none of the superbly choreographed crash scenes of cheating death that make good action films a thrill to watch. The message is the reverse. Death cannot be cheated. The film is not about the pornography of pain. It is not pornographic or voyeuristic at all, for it is through Saul’s blank and stolid vision that we see what takes place as the camera focuses in close-ups on him or follows him around. I agree with Lanzmann that the film avoids the pornography of death. I can differ from some critics, but respect them. Other critics are just stupid.

I disagree with the conviction that the film breaks the stereotype of the passive Jew, not because that is not a theme in the film, but because it is in a minor key. The resistance is there, but is not the focus of the movie. The film certainly breaks the cliché about the Sonderkommando as willing, selfish opportunistic collaborators of the Nazis. In that sense, my reader is entirely correct. For that alone, the film will be an important addition to the Holocaust genre.

The movie does certainly overturn a major theme of Hannah Arendt, an idol of my young intellectual life, her view of the “banality of evil” when in the Eichmann trial she totally and naively bought into Eichmann’s planned posturing that he was just a normal bureaucrat carrying out orders. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” For Arendt, evil was considered banal because it was carried out by normal individuals, “people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In the film, though mainly background figures, except in the scene of the Nazi doctors watching as another Nazi officer taunts and ridicules dancing at a Jewish wedding, Nazis are brutes and enforcers, bullies and murderers. Nazis are not ordinary in the least.

Evil is banal, not because it is carried out by ordinary people rather than brutes, but because such extraordinary evil reduces life to such a banal level – questing for a piece of bread and becoming to a greater and greater degrees totally banal, an automaton, in the process. It is not that Eichmann was “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” but that totalitarianism reduces life to obedience. While Arendt claimed that, “normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together” she was purveying, not a great insight, but utter nonsense. The ultimate goal of atrocities is to make that realm of atrocity the norm.

The film is, in some sense, a beacon of hope because the Nazis never succeeded in destroying the capacity to think, to decide, to act, whether as preservers of the record of hostilities, resisters to it or even wanting to resurrect a ritual from which the protagonist himself had become detached, but one that required that life always be respected and dignified. Some sort of Christian forgiveness based on Arendt’s reading of St. Augustine was not “the key to action and freedom.” The resisters, those committed to witnessing or Saul obsessed with at least one proper ritual burial, all fought against their oppressors in different ways and did not forgive them. When Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1958 book The Human Condition, that it was “far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think,” the film demonstrates the opposite to be the case. Under conditions of tyranny, it is virtually impossible to engage in effective action, but the effort is necessary as is the exercise of thought.

Son of Saul is a love story of a conscripted Sonderkommando forced to do what is most abhorrent, more abhorrent than death itself and doomed as well to end up in death after four months of forced labour. Love is not a stranger, as Arendt wrote, a destructive force in partnership with hatred, but a source of opposition to hate and tyranny. We did not need the Nazis to understand the truly radical nature of evil. It has been ever present in the history of humanity. To create a love story in the midst of such evil is a work of great art.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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