Son of Saul II

Son of Saul II


Howard Adelman

AGAIN WARNING: Only read this blog, at least after the first page or so, either after you have seen the film or after you have decided never to see it.

Yesterday, I wrote about a Hungarian film called Son of Saul that won reams of awards, including being recognized as Best Foreign Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. I noted that almost all my friends and family, who are fascinated by movies and love the genre of art, had not seen it. I myself had avoided seeing the movie and only dared to watch it in a most inhospitable place for viewing a serious movie, but, on the other hand, a very safe place for a film like this.

I also printed one excellent response of a Hungarian reader of my blog who lives in Germany. She praised its camera work with its shallow and very narrow focus of vision that forces us to identify with the experiences of the Sonderkommando who is at the centre of the film who was surrounded by a cacophony of sounds where indecipherability enhanced the film’s narrow and apparently shallow focus that also put all the horrors in the background. The design of the crematorium at Auschwitz was carried out by a foremost expert, László Raik, who worked on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Hungarian exhibit.

It was an authentic film. The lead actor and direction received enormous praise from critics. Yet, this morning, I looked up some statistics. This prize-winning extraordinary movie only took in less than $US 8 million overall. Since the movie was only released by Sony Pictures on 18 December to be eligible for the awards season, perhaps taking in only $1,777,043 in domestic attendance in 2015 could be explained. The movie only took in $37,930 its first weekend in spite of advance raves and the awards it had already won.

The low attendance cannot be explained by the fact that it was a foreign film since, in comparison to all the films in that class, the movie ranked 231st in box office returns and among all genres of films, as one of the best films ever made, it ranked 6,474 in terms of box office receipts. After reaping all its awards and the publicity around them, the movie has barely recovered its production costs – which were very low for a film of this scope – and its distribution costs. A million dollars of that return came from Hungary. Son of Saul has been Hungary’s highest grossing film. Inexplicably, almost a half million came in from each of Spain and Great Britain. Why the discrepancy between the quality of the film and the relatively low attendance?

Though the box office returns were relatively small for such an extraordinary film, the host of accolades were very numerous. Claude Lanzmann of Shoah fame raved about the film as did many critics and intellectuals. I knew a great deal of this, yet waited until this past weekend to watch it, and watched it out of desperation for a good film and in an atmosphere most conducive to repressing one’s feeling and sensibilities. Why had I waited so long? My conclusion – in late life I have succumbed to an overall propensity of contemporary North American society of guarding my sensibilities. The general pattern of children being protected by their parents, from hearing or seeing hurtful things, has influenced my own choices, as much as I criticize that over-protection.

I am especially pleased that I shared my thoughts with readers. Because I did receive a relatively large number of responses. I have selected a few below.

We saw the film in one of the repertory houses on Mt Pleasant some time ago. I think it managed to capture the hellish atmosphere that must have prevailed in the death camps, but it left unresolved issues that should have been faced, the most important being why it was so important to the central character to find a rabbi, and why he took the boy’s corpse along on the escape attempt. We left the theatre feeling that it was a very moving and significant piece of art, but we were also rather baffled by it.

Since this was the first response, I replied, “So am I.” However, I am not any longer. See below.

Dear Howard: I was intrigued by the movie and also watched it on the plane, from Toronto to Brussels, now 4 days ago. I was hesitant, because of the subject and the setting, but went for it. Watching movies on a plane, however imperfect, is often particularly emotionally intense, and this was certainly the case with this movie. I missed much of the sound (my hearing is already bad so even worse in a plane), so I couldn’t sufficiently appreciate the impact of the sound described in the excellent review below. The imagery was obviously also reduced to a very basic level. But what I saw (in combination with the little I heard) was overwhelming. I definitely want to see it again in better circumstances. The review you sent is excellent. One of the intriguing aspects for me was how the viewer and most of his co-sonderkommandos remain sympathetic to Saul and his desire to provide a ritual burial, even if they are often irritated and at times understandably angry even about the impact of his obsession on others who try to survive (one person is likely even killed as a direct result of his actions). This sympathy by his co-prisoners is even more remarkable since they themselves have put aside most of their human empathy in their daily actions, just to be able to survive the place and do what they are forced to do. In the horror and the unspeakable inhumanity of the place, a place worse than hell where an instinctive desire for survival seems the only driving force and any idea of an equitable and respectable God seems absurd, people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whoever it is). How strange it may seem at times, it also is a small sign of remaining humanity and hope…

I will definitely watch this movie again, hopefully at the TIFF. I did have a certain discomfort watching this type of movie in the banal setting of a plane…

Thanks for sharing this review.

This respondent agreed with my original reader whose response I reprinted yesterday who insisted that the film offered a sense of hope. In this response, “people still appreciate the meaningfulness of a father wanting to perform a religious ritual with the body of his son (or whomever it is).”

I did receive an answer which dealt with my puzzlement.

I agree this unwatchable movie is a must-watch. By that I mean that I find it difficult to recommend that people be traumatized (or for most Jews, re-traumatized) by this brilliantly, horrifyingly immersive Holocaust story.

That Saul’s insistence on treating the corpse of this boy with some measure of respect, of humanity, is patently irrational in their context encapsulates what the Nobel committee expressed in its award of the 2002 prize to Hungarian writer Imre Kertész, himself an Auschwitz survivor, for depicting “the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” (But don’t all successful depictions of the Holocaust focus on the individual experience? Is it not the only way our poor minds can approach the otherwise unencompassable. Six million paper clips don’t do it. We need Anne Frank and Saul Auslinger.) [Typo: the writer meant Ausländer.]

In the world in which Primo Levi’s guard explained “here there is no why” it seems out of place to question an inmate’s protest, no matter in what form, no matter how futile. Anything he does that resists his reduction to no more than a beast in a slaughterhouse is understandable.

The answer, simply put, is that it does not matter whether one organizes a revolt, tries to document and communicate what is going on, or obsessively seeks to bury one body of a boy in accordance with Jewish ritual. In such a totalitarian extermination system, all efforts at resistance and establishing a small degree of humanity end up being futile. I myself would, I hope, have opted for rebellion, but the brilliance of the film is that it shows that, even when all options are futile, the respect for choosing any of them, including going to great lengths to bury a Jewish boy whom you do not know in accordance with religious requirements and, in so doing, compromising both the rebellion and the effort to serve as witnesses, is the most important.

That very insightful reader also sent me two references. One was to a short biography of the film’s star.

Of enormous interest to me, and I suspect to you and your readers, is the life of star Géza Röhrig , a life that seems to have been lived to prepare for this role.

The reference was to Cnaan Liphshiz’s article, “What’s behind the dark charisma of ‘Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig ,” that was distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on 18 February 2016.éza- Röhrig

First, Géza is a poet with a poet’s sensibilities. He was an orphan who was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of eleven. Why does Saul wake from his automaton uniform of self-protection as he is forced to usher victims into the gas chamber, search through their clothes for valuables and then dispose of the bodies afterwards until he too, after four months of such despicable enslavement, will also meet the same fate? Why become obsessed with a boy who miraculously survived but was then subsequently exterminated? Why seek to bury that body when, as a result, as mentioned above, both the rebellion and the act of witnessing are both undermined?

When he was four years of age, Röhrig was not permitted to attend his own father’s funeral by his uncle. By not burying his father figuratively, his father’s death remained unresolved. I can fully identify, even though the decision was not made by my uncle but by my father himself who opted for no funeral and donating his body to our medical school, and even though I was then a student in that medical school and not a four -year-old boy, and even though I had been estranged from my father for over a decade. As Röhrig said, “this film is about someone who desperately wants to bury a loved one. For me it was my father.” For me it was also my father whom I ostensibly insisted I did not love.

There is one other piece of crucial information in that interview besides the fact that, as a teenager studying in Krakow, Poland, 30 miles away, he had spent endless hours at Auschwitz where he had a religious awakening. Röhrig, after he became religiously observant at the age of twenty-one in New York, to earn money, he took a job as a shomer guarding the bodies of Jews before burial as well as ensuring those bodies were washed prior to burial. (Hence, the authenticity of that scene in the film.) The cleansing was not done to allow the person to be clean when they go though the pearly gates, for there is little focus on an afterlife. It is what the act of watching, washing and caring does for those who are living. Washing the body of the boy being prepared for an autopsy not only has an unusual authenticity, but we get a glimpse of why Saul fell in love with the boy and that he did. Michael Schulman in his article, “Watching” in the 29 February 2016 issue of The New Yorker got that, and much more.éza- Röhrig -corpse-washer-and-movie-star

Finally, the original reader whose comments I reprinted yesterday sent me a follow-up.

I have just found this great interview with Nemes: (there is a readers’ forum after the interview: interesting read as well).

The key sentences regarding our respective views are these:

Nemes: “There are no survivors in my film; I have only the dead. I didn’t want it to tell the story of survival. All these older films establish a safe road for the viewer, and at the end, some kind of liberation. But that’s not the story of the Holocaust. That’s the story of how we want the Holocaust to be. It’s not the story I wanted to tell.” He admits, however, that the film’s vision is not one of total nihilism: “There is a hope there, I think: not the hope of survival, but the hope of the inner voice that might still exist, when everything, including God and religion and sanity, is gone.”

So, his thinking is close to yours, I must admit. Nonetheless, I still think ending the movie with the boy running freely in that beautifully bright forest area under the blue sky is a symbol of hope that we can shape our future differently after Auschwitz. Evidence shows we can and we did: Israel exists.

And it is to Israel’s existence and its legitimacy that I will turn back to tomorrow in my continuing discussion of BDS.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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