Dir. Laszlo Nemes. Starring Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Todd Charmont
Son of Saul makes the right stylistic choice just about every time, except once when I think its characters say too much. It’s most of the way through the movie by now. Saul (Rohrig) has made maybe a dozen profoundly irrational choices in his hellbent effort to bury the corpse of a Jewish teenager. Depending on your point of view, the most incredible thing he does is either to lose a bag of powder which the rebels at Auschwitz need for their planned revolt, or it’s to join the line of people being shot to death and then thrown into fiery pits with no defense stronger than “Sonderkommando.” One of his fellow Sonderkommandos, Abraham (Molnar), tells him at a key moment that Saul has valued the dead over the living in the past thirty-six hours. He’s not wrong, but I hated that anyone would say that in the movie; it has been made thoroughly clear already and doesn’t require anyone to say it aloud. Aside from his own personal recklessness, Saul’s actions lead to immediate deaths for at least two other people. They aren’t his fault – the men in question die somewhere between five minutes and two days earlier than they would have anyway, and of course responsibility for murder doesn’t lie with a victim – but they are signs of his desperation. He’s willing to risk every bit of safety for himself and for others in his total effort to give a boy a proper burial. In the duties he completes in the first ten minutes or so in the film, he seems mindless, thoughtless. He brings people to the gas chambers, waits and hears them cry out as they recognize what’s happening to them, goes through their clothes in search of valuables, scrubs the blood off the floor in neat segmented actions. It is only the shockingly not-dead which rouses him to life again, and which puts energy in his steps as he powers his way around the camp in search of a rabbi who will help him bury the boy. Saul understands what happens to Sonderkommandos and how short their terms of service are – We’re dead already, he says at one point – and as a dead man who’s still breathing, he has a special empathy for the other breathing dead.
The film does not take long to show us a miracle, although it is a miracle which has some basis in fact. While cleaning out a recently used gas chamber, a teenager is brought out who is still breathing. He does not look well, but that’s nothing compared to the uniqueness of his situation. (In viewing the movie, I thought this was distractingly far-fetched, but there’s precedent. An Auschwitz prisoner/doctor records the story of a girl who survived the gas chamber, was rescued briefly by other prisoners, and then killed by the Nazis once she was found.) Saul is fascinated by him and watches as he is smothered by a Nazi doctor. It is a powerful symbolic moment. It takes surprisingly little effort to make plans to recover the body – the doctor he finds is sympathetic – but finding a rabbi who will say the Kiddush is significantly harder. One man, a Greek, tries to drown himself rather than hear any more of Saul’s pleas. Later on, as a surprise shipment of Jews to be sent directly to “the pits” are brought in, Saul finds another, who is rapidly killed. He then finds a third man who claims to be a rabbi (Charmont). It becomes clear that he is not later on; by then the foolhardiness of Saul’s actions have been manifested into something almost monstrous in how many people they’ve affected.
Abraham tries to get at the root of Saul’s obsession. The general rule of the film is that the higher someone’s rank among the Sonderkommandos, the more human emotion they can still muster. Abraham, whose plan for liberating the camp and fighting the Nazis is probably as absurd as Saul’s plan to bury a teenager the right way, seems to have the drop on Saul, and even though he and Saul aren’t friends he manages to draw out Saul’s rationale as no one else is able to. Saul tells Abraham at first that the boy is his son, a claim that Abraham dismisses. You have no son, he says. He’s an illegitimate son, Saul replies. For this Abraham has no real answer, and the film turns on our own grappling with it. It is possible that the corpse is Saul’s bastard, a boy that presumably he couldn’t have done much for during his life and who deserves some attention from his father from beyond the grave. It’s also possible that Saul has mistaken the boy for his illegitimate son; the reasoning would hold firm there. It’s also possible that Saul is lying to Abraham because of the miraculous circumstances of the boy’s life, death, and death; Saul’s job is to lead the living to death and then to clean up the mess afterward, giving him ample motivation to want to do something, anything, for this boy. It’s worth noting that Saul is not nearly so moved by the deaths of others; he does not go around Auschwitz trying to bury every murdered body, but maintains a remarkable focus on the one boy. That in itself lends some credence to Saul’s statement that this is his son. Personally, I’m a believer in the third option: something about this dead boy has made a wire snap inside Saul. If nothing else, the boy gives him purpose; he has not had purpose in God knows how long.
Son of Saul carries with it a debate that 12 Years a Slave brought to the forefront a few years ago. Does a film about immense human cruelty, such as the Holocaust or American slavery, have the right to be filmed in an unusual way? 12 Years a Slave gained some level of notoriety because of what some critics called “aesthetic purity” being prized over the ugliness of the story; alternately, as the link shows, others thought that it leaned more towards torture porn. “Aesthetically pure torture porn” is an unusual genre with perhaps only one candidate for membership, and that’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a movie which makes 12 Years a Slave look like 12 Angry Men in terms of watchability. Son of Saul is a shot in a way which is outside one’s typical mainstream expectations. Virtually all of the movie is shot with the camera on Saul’s shoulder. We have a seriously limited view of what’s going on at any particular time; the camera is constantly in motion. It is one of the most subjective films I’ve ever seen. Yet like 12 Years a Slave, that unusualness is said to get in the way of the film itself. One review argues that the Holocaust should not be subject to “the ever-obvious hand of the filmmaker,” as if the hand of the filmmaker could ever not be obvious. Son of Saul has obvious directorial choices just as Schindler’s List and In Darkness and The Diary of Anne Frank have obvious directorial choices. Shoah is one of the great movies ever made, but Claude Lanzmann isn’t exactly doing a point-and-shoot documentary either; to deny that there was staging and an “ever-obvious hand of the filmmaker” there is either naive or ignorant. What praise I will give to Son of Saul is that it made me think that the Holocaust was filmable again; it gave a new perspective, largely through that subjectivity which makes the movie’s filmmaker apparent. When critics wonder how slavery or the Holocaust should be made into movies, what the best way of doing it is, their critiques usually have more to say about themselves than about the movie. (Without getting too far into this issue, one wonders if these critics praise directors primarily for being as absent as possible. What would they say about Scorsese or Fellini or Bergman, whose thumbprints were always on their work? Should the goal of making movies about difficult topics simply be brutalist realism, which would elide incontrovertible elements of human experience like imagination or personality?) An understated critique of a film like Son of Saul is that it monetizes historical suffering, and that criticism is far stronger in my mind than some airy belief that a movie about the Holocaust ought to be shot a certain way. One wonders if one should make movies about the Holocaust at all, and there are many days when I lean in that direction. But Son of Saul, shot in that utterly personal fashion, is an argument against that leaning.