The opening moments of Son of Saul are blurred. Immediately, we are deprived of clarity, for the world of the film is uncertain, indistinct, disordered, chaotic. History, too, can seem out of focus. History is gone. It has passed. It belongs to another country in which things were done differently. It, too, is a blur until focus is restored. And so it is that, when the camera does find its focus, we can see what László Nemes’s exceptional directorial debut, set in Auschwitz during its final months of operation, is really about: seeing; witnessing; bearing witness. It is about looking at history, rather than looking away. It is about recasting the audience as witness, with the accompanying moral questions, rather than allowing the audience to be passive or disengaged. It forces the audience to squint in order to see better, and withholds the comfort of blindness and of ignorance.
When focus is partially restored, we are brought close up to Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, actor and poet, whose barely expressive face is all too expressive, whose ‘acting’ consists of inhabiting, of being there again and again, in moment after moment. His reactions are the behaviourally modified reactions of someone who knows what the consequences of any reaction would be. Saul’s last name is Ausländer: foreigner; outsider; alien. As a human in such a place, how could he not be foreign? He is the foreigner in all of us.
But Saul is never entirely revealed, and he is never an omniscient narrator. We are so close to him for most of the film that we lose, as he does, all sense of context, of logic. The shallow depth of field becomes a form of third person subjective, a complex artistic choice that is both a psychological and a political statement: we try to witness but our vision is imperfect; we do witness but cannot be omniscient; we can bear witness but do not instantly or easily know what to do next. And because of this shallow depth of field, we are also forced to listen. Our sight having been inhibited, it’s our hearing that begins to function as our critical sense: the soundtrack, with its crackling flame, sliding shutters, gunshots, shouts, orders, abuse and screams, provides the film with an auditory lexicon that allows the historically specific to become universally recognisable.
By then we have heard an SS whistle and are moving with Saul through disorienting scenes of violence and confusion, of crowds shoved this way and that. We know, of course, only too well where all of them are headed. We know of the psychological tricks played to elicit the compliance of victims, the warning to hurry up in case the soup gets cold or the numbered clothes hooks that victims are told to remember as if they were to return after showering.
Saul is a Sonderkommando, one of a number of prisoners in so-called ‘special units’ tasked, under threat of death, with the disposing of bodies. Saul is from Ungvár in Hungary, and it’s suggested that he’s been in the camp for four months. This places him among the estimated 430,000 Hungarian Jews deported between May-June 1944, and there are various other historically specific details that situate the film between August and October of the same year.
A sympathetic doctor is surely based on Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew deported in June. He ended up working directly under Josef Mengele, and had to perform autopsies on prisoners on whom experiments had been carried out. He survived, via ‘death march’ to Mauthausen, to write one of that period’s most important memoirs. Then there’s an episode during which Saul helps other prisoners to take photographs of the burning of bodies in the open as well as prisoners on the way to a gas chamber. The blurry pictures, four of them, today known by the numbers 280-283 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, were thought to have been shot from the hip by a Greek Jew in the Sonderkommando, either in August or September, through the doors of a gas chamber. Finally, in the face of imminent death, there’s the uprising that began on 7 October. It involved Hungarians and Poles across four crematoria and led, ultimately, to the torture and execution of hundreds of prisoners.
Saul finds himself not simply in the middle of existential jeopardy – all life is threatened – but in the middle of human beings desperate for meaning and purpose. Can such be found? Are philosophical and spiritual questions to be answered individually or collectively? ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ as Primo Levi was told by an Auschwitz guard: Here there is no why. Yet as he, Viktor Frankl and many others have shown, meaning is everything. He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how, wrote Nietzsche.
As it transpires, in a landscape bereft of meaning, Saul does not need to find a meaning. He already carries one within him. He wants to bury someone, a young boy, possibly his son or simply a son, somebody’s son, a son who could not be saved but who must be accorded a proper burial. For Saul, saying ‘kaddish’ is not enough. He needs to find a rabbi. To many of his fellow prisoners, this represents no rational meaning at all, especially as Saul persists in his purpose to the point where he loses his jacket, something that could be punishable by death, and, worse, he loses explosive material to be used in the uprising. Which of these meanings, these purposes, whether individual, collective or transcendental, is the greater? Is meaning possible after the loss of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and siblings?
It seems that Nemes is also searching for meaning, particularly when it comes to representation, not just of victims but of perpetrators. The stereotypical East European Jew is perhaps best encapsulated by French novelist Patrick Modiano as he who goes to his death with ‘a sad smile’. There are plenty here who explode that stereotype with a million shades of resistance, a million more of meaning. As for the perpetrators, there are their universal sounds of repression and murder. But there are only two instances when we see a Nazi face.
Here, again, Nemes poses something contrary to the Nazi stereotype, the one that suggests a pure, uncompromising and consistent evil, perfectly configured, planned and organised in order to realise absolute intention. The intentionalist view of the Holocaust is the one most often handed down. It’s easier. It makes fewer demands on the intellectually lazy. What Son of Saul suggests is not the other, much more credible, functionalist view either. That view subsists in the evolution and heuristic haphazardness of Nazi methodology. Auschwitz evolved, for example, through the development of gas chambers, the challenge faced by the Topf company when constructing the crematoria, and the three ramps built especially but progressively to receive railway transports, the third of which was inaugurated in May 1944 expressly to receive the biggest transports of all from Hungary. All this points to problem-solving by all-too-ordinary people in all-too-ordinary ways.
But Nemes shows another Auschwitz, one that lies on indistinct, almost paradoxical, territory between intentionalist and functionalist. Here there is ideology without consistency, brutality with bribability, and a wholly deliberate final solution that unfolds amid filth, blood and noise. It is an all too human hell run by all too human devils. But let’s not forget that Son of Saul is a film, a drama.
Cinematically, image after image is reminiscent of the accurate yet ghoulish sketches of David Olère, the only artist in the Sonderkommando, and therefore the only one able to picture what he saw. But there are more specific connections. Director Nemes is a former assistant to Béla Tarr, and Tarr has collaborated extensively with the international prize-winning novelist László Krasznahorkai, whose Melancholy of Resistance was filmed as the Werkmeister Harmonies. Chaos is at the heart of these works, its unrelenting momentum sweeping all before it. Just as Krasznahorkai’s hapless Valuska witnesses this, so too does Saul. Indeed, Saul is the village idiot of Auschwitz, a fool on the precipice of enlightenment while simultaneously far below, clinging to a life raft of meaning.
Saul allows us to see, to bear witness, and to contemplate where meaning lies. He exists at a point in history when the last direct witnesses will soon be gone. Once they have gone, who will speak for them? Poignantly, it is not Saul. He, like the rest of the ‘characters’, makes not a single grandiose statement. Why? Because it’s all been said by those who were there, and Nemes, to his great credit, knows this. What he has created is thus special, humane, a drama that holds out a burnt offering of meanings, and whose sounds carry far beyond history to the danger and chaos that lurk anywhere and everywhere.
Nick Barlay is an author and journalist whose latest book, Scattered Ghosts, tells the story of his Hungarian Jewish family over 200 years. www.nickbarlay.com
László Nemes’s Son of Saul can be seen at the UK Jewish Film Festival on the 8th and 14th October 2015.