In these dismal times, when the issue of ‘left antisemitism’ are being ruthlessly and cynically instrumentalised within British politics in an attempt to neutralize opposition to the Israeli state, and destroy the leftist surge within the Labour Party, it’s salutary experience to see the Hungarian director László Nemes’s shattering Son of Saul. If you go to the cinema in order to escape from reality or return home with a warm glowing feeling, then this won’t be a film for you.
It’s a ferociously powerful, uncompromising, and morally and artistically audacious artistic statement about one of the most terrible periods in human history, which depicts the nightmarish sub-world of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, who collected the possessions of murdered Jews as they were led into the gas chambers, and cleared away and burned their bodies afterwards.
To call this film a ‘Holocaust drama’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. From the first awful scene in which a trainload of new arrivals are brutally and efficiently dispatched to the gas chambers while a voice through a loudspeaker promises them a shower followed by cups of tea, Nemes takes the viewer, perhaps as far as cinema can, into the epicentre of the Nazi genocide, and brilliantly re-imagines events that have already begun to fade and that many of us would prefer not to think about at all.
The fictional ‘story’ on which all this hangs, revolves around what may be an act of love or an act of madness – or perhaps both – as the Jewish Sonderkommando Saul Auslander tries to bury a boy he believes to be his son. Is the boy really his son or a case of mistaken identity? Does Saul actually have a son at all, or does the sight of the boy, who survives the gas chamber only to be murdered by a Nazi doctor, bring to the surface that human part of himself that he has been obliged to suppress?
Son of Saul leaves these questions open. Unlike Schindler’s List, it doesn’t have heroes, not even flawed heroes, to give the viewer some emotional consolation or catharsis or a some sense of moral direction. Nothing about Saul has any clarity at all.
There are no Spielbergesque tricks here to to thrill the audience, such as the utterly fake sequence in Schindler’s List where the women take a shower and scream with relief when it turns out not to be gas, no redemptive ending. The film is told from the perspective of Saul himself – hauntingly portrayed by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig in a performance of mesmerising intensity.
Like his fellow-Sonderkommando, Saul is both an accomplice of mass murder and also a victim, trapped in a society in which all the normal constructs that make human society have disappeared; family, friendship, love, community, mercy, and decency. Using his obsessive and anomalous attempt to bury his son as a prism, Son of Saul casts a terrifying light on the industrialised killing machine created by the Nazis, in which the Sonderkommando work units are merely one component of a conveyor belt dedicated to the destruction of human beings, the theft of their property, and the removal and burning of their bodies.
Much of this is depicted as a blurred background, using shallow focus camera work that concentrates on Saul himself. We rarely see the faces of the victims or even their whole bodies. Instead we see them as the Sonderkommando and the Nazis saw them – as an anonymous mass of faceless people fed through a factory-like production line, who no longer have any history, destiny or individuality, except to be killed.
Like Michael Haneke, Nemes uses sound to devastating effect, as the Sonderkommando perform their horrific tasks with manic speed against a constant background of screams, shouts, gunshots and barked orders in German. Anymore than this and the film would probably be unwatchable, but these techniques are not intended to soften the events the film depicts.
On the contrary, Son of Saul forces its audience to see the process of mass killing through the eyes of the killers and accomplices, imagine once again how the Holocaust became possible. In doing so, it triumphantly realizes Nemes’s stated aim to tell ‘the story of the dead rather than the story of the survivors.’
It’s particularly striking that such a film should come from Hungary, a country whose wartime ruler Admiral Miklos Horthy was complicit in the deportation of some 424,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and who is currently undergoing something of a rehabilitation.
Hungary is also governed by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, one of whose co-founders, the prominent commentator Zsolt Bayer, once declared ‘A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence, They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.’
Son of Saul describes a moment in history when the Nazi tyranny once took a very similar view towards Jews and others. Though the film concentrates very specifically on what Nemes calls ‘the destruction of Jewish civilisation in Europe’, his statements in interviews make it very clear that he was concerned with other acts of genocide, and also with the genocidal impulse in our own time. Not for nothing does Saul, a Hungarian Jew, go by the very un-Hungarian surname Auslander – a German word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘undesirable alien.’
In short, this is a major artistic statement about what one of the great crimes of history – the massacre of European Jewry, which offers a both a commemoration and a warning. It is serious stuff, and a reminder that antisemitism is a serious issue – far too serious to be used to the Israel-firsters and rightwing bloggers stalking Facebook comments pages and Twitter in search of an incriminating thought or a word out of place that they can use for what are really quite base purposes.