Every year, the same images flash across the screen—yellow stars, stamping black boots, those haunting words wrought in iron against an ashen sky: “Work Will Set You Free.” Holocaust films have such a reliable presence at the Oscars you have to wonder if the Academy is required to nominate them. The Foreign Language Film category is practically a breeding ground for the genre—there’s a clear line back from last year’s champion in the category, Ida, to Poland’s 2011 nominee In Darkness, to Austria’s The Counterfeiters (winner, 2007), to Sophie Scholl–The Final Days (2005), Downfall (2004), Twin Sisters and Želary (2003), Nowhere in Africa (winner, 2002), on and on and on.
This year is no exception: Son of Saul, the Hungarian nominee by first-time feature director László Nemes, depicts the moral and physical struggle of Saul, a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz forced to work in a sonderkommando unit, aiding with the disposal of bodies from the gas chambers. But even though that quick summary might put Son of Saul right in the Academy’s wheelhouse, Oscar glory is the last thing on the mind of this stunning film. Formally riveting, emotionally shattering, and astonishingly confident, Son of Saul stands above so many of its peers because it is, in fact, only partly about the Holocaust. It is just as concerned with turning its eye back to the audience, forcing us to reflect on our own cultural obsession with the horrors of the Final Solution. It is, in other words, a Holocaust movie about Holocaust movies.
It isn’t just the Oscars that have a preoccupation with World War II. Western cinema has in many ways been built on the legacy of Hitler’s camps. Consider the number of titles that became either art-house staples or pop culture touchstones: Night and Fog (1955), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Shoah (1985), Au revoir les enfants (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Life Is Beautiful (1997), etc. The way we see and talk about movies would be different without these works: What would film studies courses do without Spielberg’s little girl in the red coat, lying dead on the crisp black-and-white streets of a Polish ghetto? Or the blurred Nazi uniforms, reflected as if through a fun-house mirror, at the end of Cabaret?
These cinematic images of the Holocaust are so indelible they can leak out into the most casual aspects of Western society—when was the last time a “Sophie’s choice” actually involved dead children, instead of a generically “hard” decision? From the mountains of hair in Resnais’ Night and Fog to the endless railways of Shoah to the shivering, skeletal survivors filmed by American directors and documentarians like George Stevens present at the liberation of the camps, our visual impressions of the Holocaust are almost entirely guided by cinematic representations. Film’s apparent ability to capture a moment in time and show it to us exactly as it first happened tempts us with understanding and clarity, fueling the desire to know how and why something like genocide could happen. And so, again and again filmmakers commit the same atrocities to the screen, asking the same questions over and over, as if we will find some satisfaction in one more Holocaust film among hundreds.
Saul, the unfortunate soul at the center of Nemes’s film has a similar fixation. While clearing bodies from the gas chambers, Saul discovers the corpse of a young boy, who he insistently tells others is his son despite their protestations that he never had children. From that moment, Saul is consumed by the idea of giving this boy a proper Jewish burial, and the rest of the film is driven by his various interactions as he attempts to hide the body, find a rabbi, and recite the appropriate prayers, all while navigating the infinite perils of the camp. Again and again he is rejected or told to give up on his self-appointed task, and still he asks the same questions over and over, as if he will find some satisfaction in burying this one boy amid thousands.
The idea that filmmaking can be seen as a kind of burial has floated around intellectual circles for decades. French critic André Bazin wrote in 1958 of the “mummy complex” at the heart of all art, including cinema: “To preserve, artificially, [a person’s] bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” It’s easy to see nearly all Holocaust-related films as an attempt at mummification, a way to snatch away the deaths wrought by the Nazis and stow the victims “in the hold of life”—ghostly images of themselves, perhaps, but preserved and remembered. Son of Saul bleeds into this metaphor: By trying to bury his “son” right, Saul hopes to somehow snatch his death away from the cruel flow of events that led to the boy’s presence in Auschwitz. The proper incantations protect some semblance of life from the horror of the camps.
Many of Nemes’s choices support the notion that Saul’s desperate search for remembrance and redemption parallels that of the entire Holocaust “genre.” Nemes shot the movie on 35mm film, cinema’s traditional medium made increasingly rare by digital, a choice that emphasizes Son of Saul’s roots in cinematic tradition. It puts Nemes’s work in a formal continuum with all those previous Holocaust-obsessed benchmarks of film history: If Night and Fog was shot on film, so must Son of Saul, you can imagine Nemes thinking. He also limits the frame to a claustrophobic, boxy aspect ratio. Actor Géza Röhrig’s worn and worried face is nearly always placed right in the middle of the frame, so that we never have a clear or direct picture of the monstrous things happening around him. Instead, we glimpse bodies and flames flickering at the corner of our eyes, their presence intensely felt yet always obscured in Saul’s tunnel vision.
This is, in a way, not a story of the Holocaust at all—it’s a story about one particular man. Nemes has been criticized for clouding the wider context with this obfuscated approach, but the intense subjectivity of Son of Saul reveals an honest truth: No “take” on the Holocaust can come to a definitive conclusion. But this is not a thought audiences want to consider after committing to, say, ten hours of Shoah; if we are going to regurgitate humanity’s darkest hour, at length and in depth, there must, please, be a point. Even at the end of an early shooting script for Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, who repeatedly explored the illusion of historical memory and subjective perception over his long career, couldn’t resist labeling the conclusion of his documentary: “The lesson to be learnt.” Son of Saul senses and reflects the futility in trying to find such a lesson, even as it empathizes with the shame, guilt and desperation that drives us to try.
What Son of Saul offers is all any movie about the Holocaust can offer, self-consciously or not: a particular, sculpted experience. Nemes’s work resonates because it is so visceral, observant, and above all, self-aware: This remarkably assured director knows exactly what history he is inserting himself (and Saul) into, and why artists and audiences remain both haunted and possessed to create new images of the camps. In the film’s last shot, the camera shifts away from Saul’s perspective for the first time, passing on to a young Polish boy he encounters just outside the camp. Nemes’s film, and Saul’s quest, is over. The torch has been passed on to the next director who inevitably wades into the same muddy waters. As Son of Saul knows, it’s only a matter of time.
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