Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Tag: holocaust

Son of Saul

by Ben Diamond

son of saul

A reconstructed, blood-curdling scream – Son of Saul (Nemes 2015, 107m)

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:

Night Will Fall

No Home Movie

See also: Martin Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest, in part told from the perspective of a Sonderkommando.

No Home Movie

by Ben Diamond

Chantal Akerman lurking in the shadow of her mother, Nelly

I’ve already tackled a holocaust-themed documentary before on these pages – the more direct Night Will Fall – but here is something altogether different.  No Home Movie is a slow, thoughtful documentary about Chantal Akerman’s mother, Nelly Akerman, nearing the end of her life.  I was aware of Chantal Akerman’s work only through her 1975 three-and-a-half-hour epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but I could draw parallels between the two, in particular the presence in both films of brutally drawn out still-frame long takes, which force the viewer to go through a sort of protracted inner monologue, and at the same time try to work out what these silent pauses mean for the filmmaker.  In the 40 years since Jeanne Dielman, Akerman appears to have kept her edginess, and her ability to challenge audiences.  It even crossed my mind to directly consider Nelly as a real-life Jeanne Dielman, especially as Chantal appears to have been heavily influenced, if not defined, by her mother, and her mother’s past.  Is it just me, or was there something in the kitchen tiles, reminiscent of that 1975 apartment?

Not much about the holocaust is revealed when Chantal talks to Nelly.  The one piece of concrete information is that Nelly and her husband escaped Poland and arrived in Belgium, only to be recaptured and sent back to Poland, where the horrors of Auschwitz awaited them.  And that’s about it in terms of directly related holocaust conversation in No Home Movie.  The rest is done through introspection and insinuation.  Chantal Akerman chooses to largely be absent in the film, as she is either behind the camera, with her back to the camera, or obscured by an object in the apartment when she chooses to create an impromptu mise-en-scène with objects having the effect of naturally occurring points of abyss in Nelly’s apartment.  Akerman is most present in the film when she’s behind the camera, crafting disturbing ambient-visual metaphors, such as long takes in the car, out of the window, of desolate Oaklahoman landscapes (reflecting the vicissitudes and the disquiet of her own mind), or running round Nelly’s apartment at night, with the lights off, Nelly out of the frame, desperately trying to retrace her steps and find something, or recapture something.  The apartment space itself is turned into a memory vortex with its own warping qualities, the air thick with nostalgia, but also stifling, as we are reminded with a long take chronicling Nelly’s respiratory problems, the pathology her demise already being mapped out.  In another shot Chantal simply gazes into a body of water.  Still waters run deep.

I see the film as an extended goodbye to her mother.  She says goodbye over and over when they finish their Skype conversations, or when either Nelly or Chantal leave the apartment.  These goodbyes often take minutes because each time is as if they are saying goodbye forever.  When Nelly is led out of the apartment by her carer, and Chantal is left their on her own, it felt like the grim reaper had come to finally lead Nelly away and finally separate the two.  By the end of the film I realised how often they’d been saying goodbye to each other throughout.  Is this film Chantal Akerman’s way of letting go?  By erasing herself from her documentary and instead focusing on her mother, is she in fact saying: this is who made me; this is who I really am?  I was reminded of WG Sebald’s novels in that the holocaust always present but rarely spoken about, explored instead through trauma and metaphors, scarred landscapes.  At one point Nelly’s condition is obliquely explained away by and off-screen interlocutor thusly: ‘She’s that way because of the holocaust’.  Need we any further direct storytelling?  Much more interesting to explore the everyday, and the effects the holocaust have had on the quotidian and mundane.

Of course, Chantal Akerman – directly, indirectly, whatever – is, or was, saying goodbye to us as well.  This is her last film.  Her mother died after this film was made, and Chantal took her own life a few weeks ago.  The screening, scheduled by A Nos Amours, was due to be the crowning piece at the end of a 2-year complete retrospective of Akerman’s massive, and massively influential, body of work.  Akerman herself was due to be there for a post-screening Q+A.  Tragically, that was not to be.  It was good to see so many Akerman devotees in the audience – the event was sold out.  An exhibition of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work is currently on at the P3 gallery and runs from 29 October to 6 December –

People think it’s easy to point a camera at a landscape and shoot a static bit of footage and call it art.  With Chantal Akerman – it really fucking was art, though.  There is something wholesome and truthful about landscapes.  Her conversations with Nelly are edited and allude to greater truths, but landscapes cannot hide anything – their truth is evident in every pixel onscreen, gloriously unedited, a visual stream-of-consciousness.  I loved the long, still takes which bookended the film. The opening is simply of a tree blowing in the wind.  So much meaning in such a simple metaphor.  I can’t really describe one of the final long takes of the film, except to say that after puzzling over it for several minutes, it came to uncannily resemble another troubled landscape of sorts – the one on the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP.  I don’t quite understand how much depth, both visually and in terms of meaning, Akerman managed to squeeze into a 2D image.  But she does.  Over and over again. In another take, a bucolic setting is in the foreground. A city, barely recognisable, hovers at the top of the frame.  As if to say – ‘forget about where the people are. All you need to know about what I’m trying to say is right here.’

Chantal Akerman – 6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015


Night Will Fall

by Ben Diamond

Dark humour. It’s an interesting term, and an interesting phenomenon. I would describe it as using serious and upsetting scenarios or themes as fodder for comic effect. But, at the same time, the person employing the technique has to show a level of empathy and understanding which turns the misery we see, or read about, into something universal. This, in turn, allows us to laugh, and appreciate the attendant ironies. It is also this sense of empathy which distinguishes it from pure schadenfreude. It is a sophisticated technique, hard to pitch exactly right – the pitfalls being that when deployed it either veers off into total existential hopelessness (not funny at all), or, on the other hand, it is too conventionally funny, and therefore ceases to pack a punch when it comes to the true awfulness underlying the situation in question.

For all the failures of Martin Amis’s latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, you could not accuse him of looking at The Holocaust from a tired angle. And he is brave to use dark humour as a way of understanding, filtering, and processing those awful events – perhaps brave in a way only someone who isn’t Jewish would allow themselves to be, or could get away with. The novel derives much of its twisted and awful comic sense from the fact that the events unfolding at Auschwitz are mere background details to the central ‘protagonist’, the amoral German officer Angelus Thomsen, who derives no pleasure from the atrocities he is implicit in, but at the same time feels no real shame in what he is doing either. Instead, he is more interested in the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thence the dark humour: the huge, unignorable genocide, the thing that no-one can ever forget, is eminently ignorable for Thomsen – a mere inconvenience, something that rattles around in the back of his mind. In contrast, the romantic interest for Thomsen, of no interest to anyone other than himself, is blown up in the narrative to his primary interest, never mind the advancing march of the Russian army or any moral considerations about his involvement in the running of a concentration camp. His sense of proportion is all wrong. Ha Ha.

It’s OK that we’re still thinking about The Holocaust. It’s OK that people are still writing books about it, and making films about it. We’ll probably never stop doing that. As WG Sebald said, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” But Night Will Fall (Singer, 2014, 75m), curious in its failures if nothing else, seems to duck all the interesting questions, and hides behind shocking images, some of which are new, and most of which, in one form or another we have seen before. To simply inform us about the atrocities of the concentration camps doesn’t cut it for me, I’m afraid. Save it for a BBC documentary.

It’s one of those films where you go in thinking you know what you’re in for, and halfway through you realise it’s not the film you expected. To be wrong-footed like this can be refreshing. But Night Will Fall doesn’t seem to want to wrong-foot its audience on purpose. It just runs out of intellectual steam, or courage, to do something different, halfway through. It bills itself as being a film about a film – it’s a documentary about the joint British-American attempts to make a film after WWII using footage soldiers shot during, and shortly after, the liberation of the Nazi work camps and death camps.

There’s so much here that could’ve been looked into. How did the US, British and Russian soldiers, trained in the use of camera equipment specifically so they could document the German atrocities, feel about their job? This film doesn’t really tell us. Instead we hear from the editors in London who received the footage and watched it for the first time. They were all shocked by what they saw, apparently. This seems like a fairly obvious revelation. All the interesting details are glossed over – Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the project, for example, and the tussle for directorial control over the film once the US and the British realised that Germany was a potential Cold War ally, and one who they didn’t want to demoralise too much by bludgeoning them over the head with evidence of the atrocities that they were all complicit in.

Instead, we are shown lots of footage from the original documentary, all of which is horrifying – skeletal corpses piled high in mass graves – but all of which looks familiar. It seems both gratuitous and unnecessary, and also something to hide behind. The film, at times, feels like it would be more at home in the archives of the Imperial War Museum or British Library, largely because of the reliance testimonies given by the survivors. Singer often falls back on these interviews, playing it safe with more familiar and comfortable territory. It feels like a film which is deeply insecure about its own identity.

We’ve passed the stage in Holocaust filmography where we must come face to face with the shocking and the visceral.  We need to move on to other ways of seeing.  At one point a British officer being interviewed (as new footage, not footage from the post-war project) is talking about how the women, once liberated from the camps, appeared to return to ‘some semblance of normality’ surprisingly quickly. He says, somewhat patronisingly, that within weeks they were cheerfully nattering to each other whilst deciding which clothes to wear. But, of course, how could they have any semblance of normality within weeks of being liberated from a concentration camp? Some Holocaust survivors that are still alive today still struggle to feel, or behave, in a ‘normal’ way, let alone a few weeks after liberation. It seemed to me, watching the film, that the officer was desperate to impose his wish for normality on the situation – the alternative was too awful to think about. But he isn’t pressed on this point of view. Indeed, this level of emotional subtlety seems to be out of reach for Andre Singer.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube clip from a much more interesting and bold film about The Holocaust: American Radical: The Trials of Normal Finkelstein. It is everything a documentary should be: puzzling, engaging, electrifying, interesting and unsettling. Norman Finkelstein is a Jewish academic, controversial because of his anti-Israel views, and because he operates within an academic system with a strict line on the conflict, which is dogmatically adhered to by the academic mainstream. The clip documents one of the most tense moments on his book tour, where he takes a strong line on the inappropriate nature of the invocation of The Holocaust when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. A brilliant orator, he takes on a hostile audience with many angry Jewish people amongst them. You wouldn’t have thought that there could ever be such a palpable sense of danger present in a lecture theatre. What a fascinating angle American Radical took – Holocaust and Israeli history being chewed up and spat out again by a Jew, who himself is a fascinating character study. If only Night Will Fall had been so bold.