In recent days I’ve made two journeys back into the dark heart of Auschwitz courtesy of a book and a film. But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen, she survived the death camp, but her father did not return. The acclaimed film Son of Saul was my second encounter with the horrors of Auschwitz. Despite the praise heaped upon László Nemes’s film, I have my reservations.
Son of Saul is the first film from young Hungarian director László Nemes. His great-grandparents on his mother’s side were deported to Auschwitz and murdered there, and his mother’s accounts of the Holocaust were a major influence on the choice of subject for his first feature. The film is seen almost entirely from the perspective of Saul Auslander (‘alien’ in German), a member of the Sonderkommando (Special Squads) in Auschwitz, Jewish prisoners who were tasked with escorting their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then disposing of their corpses afterwards. Amidst the turmoil and horror of camp routines, Saul goes to extreme lengths to find a rabbi who will provide a proper Jewish burial for the corpse of a child he believes to be his own son.
Nemes’s decision to place the Sonderkommando at the centre of his film is an interesting one. Temporarily privileged by the Nazis, the Sonderkommando were entrusted with the maintaining the permanent running of the gas chambers and crematoria: it was their task to to maintain order among newly-arrived prisoners, escort them to the gas chambers, and afterwards enter the gas chambers to to extract the corpses, pull gold teeth from the jaws, cut the women’s hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes and the contents of suitcases, transport the bodies to the crematoria, oversee the operation of the ovens, and extract and dispose of the ashes.
As Primo Levi wrote in The Drowned and the Saved, ‘these Special Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate’:
On the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling. Twelve squads succeeded each other at Auschwitz; each one remained operative for a few months, then it was suppressed, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance, and as its initiation the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.
Nemes’s idea for the film was, according to interviews with the director, initially triggered when he came across the ‘scrolls of Auschwitz’, texts written by Sonderkommandos and buried in the grounds of Auschwitz which were discovered after the war. But the central device of his narrative is surely inspired by a story recounted by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved. The incident was first recalled by Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who was one of the very few survivors of the last Special Squad in Auschwitz. He remembered how his squad, sorting through the tangle of corpses in the gas chamber one day, found a young woman of sixteen still alive. They warm her, bring her broth, but know that she is doomed. An SS officer arrives and orders one of the Sonderkommando to kill her.
In his film, Nemes translates the young woman into a boy, and the brief flicker of humanity on the part of the brutalized Sonderkommando into Saul’s conviction that the boy is his son, and that he must ensure that he receives a proper burial.
The Sonderkommandos have tended to be regarded negatively as collaborators by most survivors. Primo Levi is less judgemental, emphasising that most did not serve by choice and that:
It is illogical and to demand of them, and it is rhetorical and false to maintain that they all and always followed he behaviour expected of saints and stoic philosophers.
In light of the controversy surrounding the actions of the Sonderkommando, it is interesting that the first words spoken by Saul, some ten minutes into the film, are ‘I will’. These words might simply reflect the acquiescence of the enslaved (or, if you will, the collaborator), the acceptance of yet another appalling duty. But Saul speaks these words just after witnessing the discovery of the boy who has not died in the gas chamber and then his death at the hands of a Nazi doctor. Impulsively, he volunteers to take responsibility for the corpse of the boy regards as his own son and sets in motion a plan – which becomes the central thread of the film – to spare the boy from the ovens and give him a proper Jewish burial. In this context, his words become a gesture of humanity and defiance.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi describes the shock of the arrival at Auschwitz as being precipitated into a world which was terrible, yes, but also indecipherable:
It did not conform to any model, the enemy was all around but also inside, the ‘we’ lost its limits, the contenders were not two, one could not discern a single frontier but rather many confused, perhaps innumerable frontiers, which stretched between each of us. […] This brusque revelation, which became manifest from the very first hours of imprisonment […] was so harsh as to cause the immediate collapse of one’s capacity to resist.
As many reviewers have noted, the most striking feature of Nemes’s cinematography in Son of Saul is how effectively it translates that sense of subjective confusion into film language, a perfect visual representation of a mental state that has come to terms with the unthinkable. Throughout the film we see only what Saul sees, and Nemes films in long, unbroken hand-held shots that can last for minutes. Everything is in shallow focus, while the use of the almost square frame Academy aspect ratio has the effect of placing Saul’s face or the back of his head at the centre of every shot means that the terrible violence taking place around him remains an out-of-focus blur. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is loud, clear and explicit. This is how Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic, expresses it:
Most of all, we watch Saul. The camera hugs him close throughout almost the entire film, peering over his shoulder such that it presents the camp from his perspective while keeping his face (and the large red X on his back that marks him as Sonderkommando) in the frame. Nemes uses shallow focus both to keep the audiences’ eyes on his protagonist and to keep the horrors surrounding him—the arbitrary executions, the ever-present corpses—at a slight remove that’s simultaneously humane and disconcerting. The narrow, box-like frame of the film emphasizes a profound sense of claustrophobia and containment. The movie is at once clinical in its accumulation of small details and dreamlike in its execution, a waking nightmare through which Saul somnambulates, the audience right alongside him.
In an interview with Nemes in the Guardian, Andrew Pulver wrote that ‘Nemes’s film has allowed audiences to enter the consciousness of the Sonderkommando like nothing else’, while in ‘Son of Saul, Kierkegaard and the Holocaust’, a remarkable essay in the New York Times, Katalin Balog, an associate professor of philosophy argued:
“Son of Saul” directly engages the viewer’s subjectivity by its style and mode of presentation; its achievement is to embody the dynamic that is its very subject matter. Kierkegaard called such communication — the only sort he thought befitting a subjective thinker — “double reflection.” He thought this is the only way that the authenticity of the message can be guarded — the only way to avoid being a town crier of subjectivity. In this way, “Son of Saul” is both art and philosophy: It makes inwardness visible. Through its depiction of death and destruction it reminds us how to live.
There is no doubt that everything we see in Son of Saul (or half glimpse at the edge of the frame or in the shallow depth of field blur before Saul’s eyes) is truthful in the sense of being based on historical fact: the child that survives the gas chamber, the Sonderkommando revolt in Auschwitz in October 1944, even the final scene in which Saul and fellow prisoners who have fled the camp shelter in an old barn.
In the Guardian interview, Nemes stated, ‘You have to approach it as a documentary’, arguing that classical storytelling in the death camps doesn’t make sense. ‘Mainstream Holocaust films project emotions on to a story that just didn’t have them.’
Yet, in the end, I was not entirely convinced. There is a classical story-telling arc in Son of Saul, and there is something very close to a Spielberg redemptive moment near the end – even if it is immediately erased by the nihilism of its final frames. Speaking to the Guardian, Nemes insisted:
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.
My feelings about Son of Saul are conflicted. On the one hand, like just about everyone who has reviewed the film, I emerged from the gruelling experience of watching Nemes’s film impressed by his immersive cinematography and the meticulous care that had gone into ensuring that everything we saw had an historical basis.
At the same time, I couldn’t escape a sense of being manipulated – if only more subtly – in the same manner as the mainstream Holocaust films which Nemes decried in his Guardian interview. Although most critics have related Son of Saul to the intellectual tradition of documentaries like Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) and Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), I was disturbed by the way in which the film’s unrelenting use of close-ups pushes the horrors being perpetrated on condemned men, women and children into a background blur. Moreover, the steadfast focus on Saul and his fellow Sonderkommando means that what results is a Holocaust film in which the Nazis are almost entirely absent.
Noting that Son of Saul has been praised by Claude Lanzmann, Richard Porton wrote in Cinemascope:
It is slightly odd that Lanzmann manages to overlook Son of Saul’s quite palpable sentimental underpinnings. Despite the austere veneer of a style influenced by Béla Tarr (Nemes spent two years as Tarr’s assistant), there’s an undeniably Hollywood-like impetus to the narrative. The crux of the central ‘conflict’, in a narrative arc that would easily have pleased [screen-writing guru] Syd Field, involves Auslander’s discovery that the corpse of a young boy is in fact his son. This catalytic event convinces Saul that he must, despite the threat of retribution from his Nazi tormentors, provide his son with a proper Jewish burial.
Porton concluded that Nemes ‘artfully disguises his film’s sentimentality with a plethora of distancing devices. It’s of course up to the viewer to decide whether this mongrel aesthetic yields any new insights or merely recycles old Holocaust tropes in shiny new packaging.’
I certainly wouldn’t describe the ‘packaging’ of Nemes’s film as ‘shiny’. But, pondering this film in the week since I saw it, I have wondered whether the only valid approach to the Holocaust is through documentary. Despite Nemes’s claim, his film is not a documentary even though it has the look of one. It has a storyline that leads us to a moment in which Saul’s soul is literally illuminated, before slamming us up against a brick wall of nihilism. I wonder what purpose such a work serves. I worry that someone might leave a film that offers no context for the events it depicts confused and uncertain of their significance.
- Son of Saul and the Ungraspable Horrors of Auschwitz: interesting article by Richard Brody in New Yorker
- The Sonderkommando Revolt at Auschwitz in October 1944 (Holocaust Education & Research)
- In devastating Son of Saul, Jewish director goes where few others dare (Times of Israel)
- How Documents Buried by Jewish Prisoners at Auschwitz Tell the Story of Genocide (Slate)
- Why is “Son of Saul” controversial? (Screen Prism post by Shelley Farmer)
- László Nemes: ‘I didn’t want Son of Saul to tell the story of survival’(Guardian interview)