Son of Saul
by Ben Diamond
I’m not sure what there is to say after witnessing a day and a half in the life of Sonderkommando Saul Ausländer, prisoner of Auschwitz in 1944. The choice to simply show, through the eyes of one man, what was happening, in real time, in Auschwitz, is a bold one. ‘Hollywood Holocaust’ narratives – The Pianist, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – look like they are portraying a whole different Holocaust compared to this. Son of Saul is beholden to no-one and, as such, chooses to show, all around Saul, the sickening details that other films have turned their heads or shied away from. Such is the freedom that has been granted to a director on his debut who, by all accounts, struggled to secure the funding needed for such a daring piece. The mounds of ashes being shovelled into the water, the bodies being dragged along the floors, the banging on the walls of the gas chambers. All these and more are constants in the film, sickening realistic details that never simply fade into the background, no matter how repetitive. They never lose their power to shock.
Things are more complicated than a simple this-is-how-things-were account for two reasons. Saul lives longer than most because he is a member of the Sonderkommando, the unit made up of Jewish inmates who assisted the Nazis in disposing of bodies after they had been gassed, before eventually being disposed of themselves. So part of the complication of this film is that Saul is, in some way, a collaborator with the Nazis and a traitor of his own people. But, for me, the more interesting, second complication, concerns the chain of events set in motion at the start of the film, where Saul spots his own son – still breathing – among the dead after the gas chamber doors have been re-opened for the Sonderkommando to remove all evidence of evil before the next group of Jews arrive. The horrors of Auschwitz become secondary to his quest to give his son a proper burial, the camp being a nightmarish maze he must zigzag through in order to avoid his own demise, find a rabbi to say mourner’s kaddish with him, and lay his son to rest in the proper way. Another prisoner accuses him at one point of prioritising the dead over the living, his desire for proper Jewish ceremony putting the prisoners’ plans for an uprising in jeopardy.
The film has interesting things to say about perspective, too. There is a discord between the viewer’s experience and Saul’s experience. The camera is almost always trained on Saul – he is usually either walking towards or away from the camera. Things happening in the background are simply that – things happening in the background. Saul’s determination to give his son a proper Jewish burial is carried out with determination, and he is always purposefully doing something, never stumbling about aimlessly. For the viewer, however, the experience is overwhelming, chaotic and confusing, even though Saul never has a moment where his resolve wavers. We can’t know what he’s thinking, planning to do next, or even seeing. This seems like a serious challenge to the idea that we can properly document or understand such dark periods of history. We can only watch and try to interpret. It is a rare beast where you have a strong understanding of a character’s motivation and at the same time a sense of utter bewilderment at what is going on. There are definite parallels between the techniques used in Aleksei German’s fictitious Hard To Be a God – a similar case of a camera always in flight with terrible scenes constantly unfolding all around – and Son of Saul.
For the perpetrators, the logical extension of the telos of the Holocaust is the denial of the Holocaust after it has happened. We witness this today. This film is all about documenting, witnessing, remembering, in the face of forgetting. This is the power of film – to show the impossible. Because no such videos exist of the actual atrocities. Part of Son of Saul shows the struggle to document the horrors of Auschwitz as one inmate tries to covertly take pictures of the extermination taking place, and another hides his writings. The Nazis also tried to exterminate the Sonderkommando. So this film serves the dual function of documenting of how memories were erased, as well as trying to reconstruct some of that memory. Auschwitz, of course, became the focal point of post-Holocaust memory because it was both a work camp and an extermination camp, leading to many survivors’ testimonies.
The most horrifying scene in 12 Years a Slave, another film about parts of our recent past that some would rather forget, shows the lynching of a man, low enough so that if he just stands on the tips of his toes, he can breathe. And he struggles on for an excruciating length of time, the camera static. The big personal revelation for me after seeing that was that I only remembered this scene again a few days after I’d seen the film – I had erased the most shocking part from my memory, pretty much as soon as I had witnessed it. As the atrocities pile up in Son of Saul, you feel that director László Nemes has tried to construct such an unblinking portrait that it is simply impossible to forget.
Other Holocaust-related writings from this blog:
See also: Martin Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest, in part told from the perspective of a Sonderkommando.