Son of Saul: Versions of the Irrational
By Christopher Sharrett.
I have been meaning for some time to put pen to paper about last year’s superb achievement by Laszlo Nemes, Son of Saul, but have hesitated for various reasons, not least of which was that any comment by me on the film would as this point seem wholly superfluous. But after numerous conversations, including one by email with our distinguished editor, Daniel Lindvall – who has some important philosophical and political problems with the film – I decided I was merely being lazy. I should say also that I have been inspired in this short piece by conversations with Stuart Liebman, one of the great scholars of Holocaust cinema and a very great human being.
I find Son of Saul to be one of the few truly engaging films that I have seen this year (the only other I can think of offhand is the Turkish film Mustang). I return to Son of Saul, now that it is on disc, very often, such is my admiration for its drama and articulation, for its comment on its moment under examination, and for its statement about life. F. R. Leavis, in discussing the novel, remarks: “‘Life’ is a necessary word.” The quotes around “life” and the italicized “is” suggest that “life” is a contested term, and that for many scholars the concepts it represents simply aren’t important. Leavis wrote, of course, before the age of theory, before postmodernism and the “posthuman,” before capitalism rendered human life nearly meaningless, with the posthuman actually embraced by academics who claim that humanism is “unscientific.” Leavis also emphasized the need to be “intelligent about life,” which insists that art must affirm life; hence he could not accept the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and dismissed his novels outright. If Leavis were alive today I would argue with him (a daunting prospect) about the need not only to think more about Hardy, but to see films like Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Weekend (1967), The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Red Desert (1964), and other works that are decidedly harsh in their pessimism, but are unflinchingly honest in addressing the crises of late capitalist civilization, each (I might hesitate about Weekend) showing humanity in deep crisis caused by its political and economic systems. Son of Saul doesn’t rank with the above films although it shares features with them. It has distinction, mainly in what I would call “negative affirmation,” namely, an insistence on the worst of current human failure that we might reflect on what we have lost of our humanity, and what can still be preserved.
Nazism was the most horrendous manifestation (thusfar) of the capitalist state, but much of the art about the Nazi genocide, certainly films like the venerated Schindler’s List (1993), offer consolations, not an understanding of the event. Can we expect more from Spielberg, whose career has provided nothing but wide-eyed pastimes for a brain-dead culture? His film about the Holocaust is a story of two super-Aryans duking it out, one “good,” the other “bad.” Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (1997), a work so filled with poor judgment (Harvey Keitel as an SS guard with a German accent, as a small example) that it might be accused of “exploitation,” but it is for me a work far superior to Schindler’s List, since its clear-light-of-day emphasis on the killing process of Auschwitz-Birkenau (we are prone, I think, not to associate images of the genocide with sunshine) is a visual rethinking of the genocide, not shrinking from showing the step-by-step process in detail. The industrial underpinnings of the genocide are made clear in this film – the industrial capitalist age finally reveals itself as a system producing nothing, with factories centered on murder and the darkest annihilation of any positive notion of the human experiment.
Son of Saul might be said to offer some shreds of hope for humanity, but its point is that the Holocaust (I don’t care for this word’s religious connotations, nor the use of the definite article, suggesting that this genocide surpasses all others – although it is unique in several respects – but I won’t litigate that here) was about death, defeat, failure – prospects that now face us universally.
Son of Saul conveys a feeling that struck me when I first viewed Giacometti’s metal sculpture Tall Walking Figure (1961), a work that for years appeared on the cover of William Barrett’s graceful but very wrongheaded study of existentialism, Irrational Man (1958), at one time in everyone’s undergraduate library. The terribly emaciated, distended figure, with no gender or identity (there is no face), apparently charred, is an indelible image of humanity, one possible, I think, only after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. The figure suggests all of Nietzsche’s neurosis (and false bravado) about the death of God and our utter isolation in the universe. Yet the figure is walking forward, one foot in front of the other, perhaps with a last gasp, but nevertheless suggesting an affirmation. But thoughts about the statue are permanently linked to Barrett’s troublesome work, which argues that the irrational – that is, feelings of alienation, anguish, a concern for the void in front of us – cannot be satisfied either by Marxism or Logical Positivism (which Barrett seems to link to empiricism). Barrett’s thinking is romantic, his view of the human being not unrelated to Romanticism as a movement. He talks about the irrational as if it is solely the preoccupation of the bourgeoisie, of the educated classes who feel, as Barrett does, above any material view of the world. There is the irrational of important artists like Blake, Kafka, and Camus, and the irrational imposed from above on the population, one of utter pain, from which there is no escape, no rationalization via existential maunderings. There is the utter irrationality of the Nazis, which, like other irrationalities of the ruling class, serves interests that finally seem utterly bizarre and self-defeating. The Nazis continued the genocide of European Jews and other “subhumans” with a fury, even when they ran out of oil and food, just as Vietnam was pummeled with bombs and chemicals for no practical reason whatsoever, even by the US rulers’ estimation, after Tet.
I feel a need to say that I am a fairly competent autodidact on the topic of the Nazi annihilation of the European Jews for some personal reasons, which will no doubt sound a bit ridiculous. When I first encountered, as a child, images and narratives about the Nazi extermination camps I felt immediate empathy, combined with shock and revulsion. There was also a strong jolt of recognition. As a boy, I lived under conditions of oppression for eight years in a parochial grammar school – the high school was hardly better. Comparing the Nazi death camps to a nasty grammar school is absurd – yet, I think not. I suggest we are talking about questions of degree, with the school registering not much on a scale measuring human injustice, the death camps off the scale to a point that human imagination is challenged. But the grammar school – run by vicious nuns who hated children (and people in general, although they wore a mask over their sociopathy) and tormented them physically and psychologically – is one component of an institution, the Catholic Church, whose foundations are rooted in oppression and repression. Indeed, the European fascists had cordial relations with the Vatican throughout World War II. The cruel neurosis of the nuns of the Fifties was rooted no doubt in their “vows” (promises that must be adhered to regardless of changing life circumstance), in the repression of their sexuality, in the impossible contradictions of family life (Catholic fathers were known to give up a daughter to the convent for “indulgences” – meaning a free pass into heaven), and in their position essentially as slave labor to perform work for a parish, like teach “unruly” children, a task for which they brought no skills whatsoever.
In any case, my problematical equation of a troubled childhood with the Nazi death camps strikes me as not unreasonable since we are talking about institutions and ideologies designed to oppress people – fascism is still in the air around the globe, in actual existing governments and in popular attitudes; more positively, the church is at this writing shutting down many of its schools and even whole parishes, a consequence, I think, of the public reaction to the enormous sexual atrocities perpetrated by priests on children over the decades, sanctioned by the Vatican at least by its refusal to confront the known problem. One can also hope that people are becoming enlightened about the role of doctrine in causing oppression and repression, and are finding spiritual sustenance elsewhere (one hopes in art). Any oppression of one group of people by another, or indeed of any individual by another, is innately horrid and reactionary, the last because it stifles human progress at all levels. Of course mass murder is the ultimate act of oppression, a role the U.S. has fully adopted – over 15 million people have died in colonial or neocolonial wars since the end of World War II, when the U.S. found itself with unchallenged military authority over the world (the Soviet catch-up plan did little more than guarantee its own bankruptcy. The assaults on the Middle East and Central Asia of the last two decades have produced a new fascism, one with a democratic façade, so the U.S. middle class can still enjoy some degree of consumer comfort (a situation fading fast). A condition of militarization throughout U.S. culture has produced a dumbed-down and vicious society, as the victims of U.S. incursions increase, and as lunatic groups inspired by superstition and continued American arrogance carry out their own barbarism.
But the Holocaust is still representative of human monstrousness, sanctioned by the state, at its most abominable, perhaps conveying a knowledge about the human condition of which few people would care to partake.
The most notable formal aspect of Son of Saul is its square, Academy-style aspect ratio, severely limiting visual information, especially since the image has an extremely shallow focal depth. Saul Auslander (Geza Rohring), a Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to help with the gassing and cremation process, allowed certain privileges but for a short time – Sonderkommando squads, known as “keepers of secrets,” were executed and replaced every few months) at Aushwitz-Birkenau in 1944, is always in the foreground: the camera is with him constantly, showing his face, or the back of his head, or his perspective. While he is washing vomit and feces out of the gas chamber after a mass killing, he discovers a boy still alive. There is no real evidence that this boy is his “son,” but he obsesses about him, determined to see that he gets a proper Jewish burial (the boy is suffocated by an SS doctor) with a presiding rabbi. Saul is utterly fixed on the boy, to the point that he seems indifferent to an upcoming camp rebellion, a famous moment in the history of the Holocaust, to a point that his role in the plan almost sabotages the plan itself.
The visual strategy of Laszlo Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely provides the film’s most arresting yet ethically dubious aspect. Since we face a square aspect ratio, the amount of “horizontal” information is limited, with Saul taking up most of the image. But we see a great deal if we look past him, around his shoulders and head. We see piles of dead bodies in the gas chamber as the camera focuses on Saul working; we see people being shot en masse, their bodies pushed into fire pits when the crematoria are overtaxed. The sound mix – with shouts, screams, barking dogs, crying, machinery grinding, orchestral music, engines – suggests an atmosphere of total chaos, yet one of discipline, allowing the methodical murder of thousands of people per day.
Nemes, in his first film, has captured the bizarre hell of the extermination camps like no one before him. In his indispensable book Film as a Subversive Art (1974, regretfully out of print), Amos Vogel remarked that the Nazis achieved in life nightmares previously rendered only from imagination by Bosch, Goya, and the Surrealists. Nemes and his colleagues disorient us; when we are within the sickly grey-green walls of the crematorium, the camera is constantly on the move, following the enforced movement of Saul and fellow Sonderkommando. The Nazis’ control of the bodies of people seem an extension of the factory system, the school, the prison. Every second of human physical activity is controlled and monitored. The space of the crematorium seems somewhat small, but at some points large. We get a fair sense of the relationship of one room to another: the undressing room and gas chamber are underground, the crematorium and autopsy room (for selected “pieces,” as bodies are referred to by the Nazis) upstairs. Yet the relationship of one room to another seems obscure – the effect has been achieved in film history by the best artists, such as Max Ophuls in his masterpiece The Reckless Moment (1949). Nemes remarks that one visual source were the drawings of M.C. Escher, images that seem utterly realistic, but with another glance are disconnected from reality as spaces are pulled inside-out. Escher was a mathematician whose work might be seen the visual equivalent of the scientific relativity developed by Einstein, which when applied to art looks utterly destabilizing. Nemes’ use of visual disorientation assists the sense of the inmates’ exhaustion, their alienation at a profound level, their labor devalued to a point that they hardly function as mechanisms – but isn’t this a bit related to the factory or office worker staring at the clock, begging for the day to end? Chomsky has remarked that a basic Enlightenment concept was that one must have control over one’s labor, and not make an object at the command of another. Today, capitalism has made such an assertion sound ridiculous. The Nazis in a sense annotated, with the help of racial doctrine, the horror of the impressment of the human being into a service over which s/he has no control.
The most entrancing – I would even say endearing – aspect of the film’s visual strategy is introduced with the first image. We see trees and other greenery in an out-of-focus distance, then what appear to be human beings running toward us. Saul and another man come into focus. The image evokes Impressionism, odd since this gentle art movement, capturing as it does fleeting moments of time as it glances with half-awake eyes at nature and humanity, seems hardly appropriate for what is really a horror film (Son of Saul was actually categorized – sensibly – in the genre when I searched for tickets on the Fandango site). Nemes has remarked that he steered clear of Expressionism, with its odd angles and high-contrast light and shadow so as not to evoke the horror film. But his palette is hardly neutral, particularly when we are inside the furnace room.
Impressionism prevails, the film returning us to nature as Saul and his fellow rebel Sonderkommando are captured in a forest and shot after their rebellion. The delicacy of Impressionism is emphasized in the opening and closing shots, with nature fleetingly captured and affirmed even as it is circumscribed by the hell of human culture. But the final image of a forest under a misty, overcast sky can also remind us of the icy, implacable face of nature railed against by Sade in Peter Weiss’s remarkable Marat/Sade (1964).
There is an especially compelling moment in the first image. As Saul runs into focus, one notes some activity near the bottom left of the image. The notes for the film say that it is “someone digging.” But there are two people in the image, who appear to be having sexual intercourse – one person is holding something, so my analysis can’t be certain (they could be burying one of the legendary “scrolls of Auschwitz,” which tell us what really happened); there may be a small note of Eros trying to sustain itself in the very heart of death incarnated. Such a note certainly appears later.
The focus on Saul may be ethically and politically problematical. Nemes’ aesthetic strategy seems also a philosophical choice, a preference for the individual subject vs. the collective, or the preservation of individual consciousness vs. collective action. To this I would first say that Saul is a traditional “narrator,” one common to the nineteenth-century novel, who takes us through a social predicament while suggesting how the individual, utterly devastated monadic subject is central to history – s/he is the valuable particle from which all else emanates.
The activity of the plotters trying to break out of captivity – and cause at least a little destruction to the Nazi death machine – is perhaps sidelined (although in fairness the narrative makes us conscious of the plotting soon into the film; the revolt follows the historical record quite well). The film acknowledges the human being first, as Saul, a man emptied of his humanity, a walking corpse, tries to retrieve what he has lost. The foregrounding of Saul also reminds us of his flaws even as his humanity is only slightly returned to him before his own murder. This is most evident when he goes to “Kanada,” the warehouse run by imprisoned women containing mountains of clothing and other personal effects taken from the murdered.
In Kanada, Saul is tasked to rendezvous with Ella (Juli Jakab), a participant in the rebellion plot. Ella has a stark beauty that persists even as she registers some of Saul’s dehumanized blankness. She says Saul’s name and takes his hand. He pulls away with a note of anger, as if he will not allow that to be revived. The two have had some sort of relationship, but what? The question, like much else, is left hanging. Saul’s refusal of Ella’s small gesture of affection is telling. Ella’s humanity is visible, much more so than Saul’s.
One considers Saul as a man. His obsession with the boy and rejection of Ella might be evidence less of bitterness than narcissism. At some moments he is stationary, as if in reflection; at other moments his face looks a bit threatening, such are his roiling emotions. What is important is the moment with Ella itself, the female kind and open to experience, the male typically arrogant, obdurate, by his nature devoid of feeling and authenticity. The Ella-Saul moment captures the archetypal male-female relationship, provoking questions about the doom humanity imposes on itself, the “normal” heterosexual relationship impossible in the best (insert here the best melodramas, e.g., Ophüls’ Caught, 1949) and worst circumstances under patriarchal capitalism.
Nemes’ direction forces viewers to resolve questions, a challenge since the film insists on an atmosphere of structured absurdity. (I am reminded of a sentence from Primo Levi, when he asked an SS guard why the guard struck him in the face; the guard replied: “Here there is no why!” [not “Here you can’t ask why”], an announcement about the death of basic things like cause and effect). Fascism destroys reason, even as it functions in nature. The idea appears in many odd moments of the film, like Saul standing with his right arm crooked as he expects an SS officer to continue a dance mocking Jewish peasant culture – both Saul and the officer are stationary for a moment, the SS man with a mocking “Jewish veil” hanging from his cap, two ugly figures frozen in time. When the SS man begins his tormenting of Saul, he uses him like a puppet, pushing him about while mocking Jewish customs. This is the individual as metonym, in this case not at all fair since Saul’s ties to Judaism are obscure: is he all that religious or part of a culture? (His last name translates “outsider”). Is his foolish rescue of the dead boy about the boy, Judaism, or himself? – the latter seems most evident, given Saul’s causal cruelty, yet the character demands our sympathy.
Ella gives Saul a small bag of gunpowder to be used in the plot – he loses it in his scatterbrained attempts to find a rabbi for the boy. He even ends up joining a death march to the pits where inmates are being shot to death. He seems oblivious to the extreme danger – after all, his own life instinct is mostly gone. He takes off his jacket and shirt, looking as if he is ready to join the naked people at the death pits, but his partial undress is meant to assist a rabbi (a fake as it turns out) who is given Saul’s Sonderkommando clothes. What seems an act of charity – for the false rabbi and the boy – is a selfish act, or perhaps one that is merely nonsensical. Or can we credit Saul with charity? It seems unreasonable, since his actions aren’t for the boy or Judaism but for himself, his actions always involved in saving less his body than the value of his mind and sensibility.
Saul’s efforts result in at least one death, that of a Greek rabbi who is part of a team shoveling piles of human ash into a river. Saul presses the rabbi, throwing his shovel into the river. The rabbi dives into the water; Saul saves him, but since a shovel is worth more than a Jew, the rabbi is shot by the SS.
Saul’s face forms the prime, indelible image of the film, captured by cinematographer Erdeley so as to emphasize the ambiguity of the human subject even in its disintegration. At times, the portrait shots of Saul, nearly crowded out of the image, recall the origins of portraiture, at its apex in the quattrocento and the Northern Renaissance, when humanity first took center stage in the history of art. When Saul is crowded by other Sonderkammando, including an ominous Soviet POW, the image recalls Bosch’s Christ Before Pilate (1520), with ugly faces pressing in on the one authentic human being, but Jesus looks weak and forlorn, hardly able to “save” anyone. The portraiture of Son of Saul shows a secular tradition, with no one coded as evil (except the Nazis) each character possessing strong, compelling qualities threatened with extinction. One can argue that Saul’s friend Abraham (Levente Molnar) is the “hero” of the piece; his face has a sensitivity and a general concern for those near him that is missing from Saul. Unlike Saul, he is concerned with social events, especially the uprising. Saul, on the other hand, is sometimes bathed with a greenish-brown light that makes him sinister, easy given that Geza Rohring’s expression is always close to a frown. Rohring’s performance, and Nemes’ mise-en-scene, offer us a sympathetic (because of his predicament at the hands of monstrous people) central character of mixed and dubious motivations. In this, Son of Saul is a remarkably courageous image of humanity.
Saul smiles twice, once when he is able to wash the dead boy’s body in private, then, at the end, when he slowly smiles at the camera. There is some argument about this shot, since one might assume this smile is part of the countershot to the image of the Polish peasant boy who appears at the door of the shack where the escaped Sonderkommandos are catching their breath. Such an idea suggests that the boy is an “angel of death,” probably a spy for the SS who are about to annihilate the men (that we see only men in this final moment is problematical given the role of women in the Auschwitz revolt, but the Sonderkommando captured in the forest were indeed all men), or that Saul conflates this boy with his “son.” Rohring states that he wasn’t thinking of the boy as he gazed at the camera. He has been only partially successful – the boy was saved from the inferno only to float down a river. Saul’s smile seems an affirmation, but not a consolation. Some argue that the film’s authenticity resides in its insistence that the Holocaust was about death, not salvation for Zionism contra Spielberg et al. But the final image, like the first, is of nature, not death, yet the forest, under clouds, conveys the ambiguities of nature. But Nemes suggests that the rain comes, so the trees will grow.
Son of Saul’s value is in its authenticity, demonstrated in the richness and honesty of its images, from its tribute to the human face to its unrelenting portrayal of mass extermination, taking place at the heart of modernity, causing the mostly addled complaints from the Frankfurt School about the Enlightenment finally producing nothing, Adorno telling us that poetry after Auschwitz is obscene, itself an obscene and ridiculous idea. In Son of Saul, even the killing process makes us find some aspect of the truly human, the creative, the sensitive, in the midst of hell. We see countless naked bodies, their genitals exposed. Such images assert defiantly the life instinct for all the relentless attempt to smother it.
The piles of dead bodies in the gas chamber raise various questions. Holocaust survivors such as Eli Weisel, and filmmakers like Claude Lanzmann (who likes Son of Saul) proscribe images of the dead out of respect for the victims, and the belief that this genocide is unrepresentable, an idea that always struck me as censorious. In an interview, Nemes has refused to answer a simple question about whether the piles of bodies are actors (unlikely), mannequins, or CGI images. He refuses out of his belief that this matter is “sacred.” This strikes me as coy and disingenuous. These are after all his images, not the actual dead of the gas chambers, and he has chosen to show these images. Beyond that, the notion of images of the dead violating “sacred” space appears to flow from Biblical proscriptions against the graven image. I am open to notions of the sacred, but not of a religious order. My own sense of the term, in my mish-mash philosophy, embraces the thinkers and artists of the quattrocento and after, including today Haneke, Dumont, and a few others, and thinkers from Kierkegaard to Thoreau to Chardin – and Marx, one of the greatest humanists. It is precisely the artist’s responsibility to look at the world, to prompt reflection, analysis, and change. Are we to have no more Night and Fog (1955)? No Soviet or U.S. Army Signal Corps images of the death camps? No Robert Capa images of the Spanish Civil War? No Las Hurdes (1933) to chronicle abject misery? At times the artist’s duty falls to journalists of the most courageous and honest rank. And it is precisely the victims of genocide caused by tyranny and the ambitions of state power and imperialism who must be shown so that the truly human in us responds fully – and with the totality of information – so that we can strike against these horrors.
I may be mistaken about the source, but to my best recollection Elie Weisel noted many years ago that the Holocaust seems to have been ground up as if with mortar and pestle, and sprinkled over the rest of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century. Given the number of genocides perpetrated by the U.S. alone since World War II, he is correct. In the age of postmodernism, when “the body” is the subject of endless essays clotted by untestable theories, when numerous artists try to create simulacra of the body out of latex or what have you, to tell themselves, I think, that a regard for the human, and the “real” has disappeared. There is reason to reclaim the human through creativity, and honesty and authentic argument, with an avoidance of religion, the irrational, and dubious notions of the end of the Enlightenment, or the end of days (something that all sorts of people, from born-again types to “radical” academics, appear to want). A traveling art exhibition gives me special pause. It is Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds (1995), placed in its own museum, then turned into a traveling exhibition, mounted in London, then taken to destinations like Las Vegas, a hell on earth if ever there was one. James Bond strolls through the exhibit in Casino Royale, which is very fitting: a movie celebrating state-sponsored assassination finding kinship with the transformation of dead bodies into curiosities for the haute monde. The exhibit consists of dead bodies turned, via plastic, into statues, the skin removed to reveal musculature in moments reminding one of the Hellraiser franchise (1987-2011). I do not want this art – nor any art – banned. I am interested in even the vilest exhibitions at least as symptoms of where we stand.
Nemes’ images of death have no truck with postmodern cultural decay. They remind us of the essential grace of the species at its best. His film looks to nascent life, the affirmation of eros waiting to challenge its opposite.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.
Bilan, R. P. (1979). The Literary Criticism of F. R. Bilan. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Leavis. F. R. (1972). Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion, and Social Hope. New York: Harper and Row.
Levi, Primo (1996). Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Touchstone.
Storer, Richard. (2009). F. R. Leavis. Abingdon UK: Routledge.