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Son of Saul: On the Human Imperative.

GRAND PRIX FESTIVAL DE CANNES

EEN FILM VAN LASZLO NEMES

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I doubt there has ever been a film about the Shoah that is at once as harrowing and as immersive as this one. It is no accident that Son of Soul has been lavished with honours--an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe award, the Grand Prix at Cannes, and citations from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. From the opening sequence, we find ourselves thrust into Saul's mad, murderous, mystifying, maze-like world, a 24-7 death factory, a charnel house built on a scale scarcely conceivable ...

ABOUT FIFTEEN MINUTES into Son of Saul, the hypnotic first feature film by young Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, Saul Auslander--member of a Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz--witnesses a small miracle: a young boy survives the gas chambers. In many another Holocaust film, a second miracle might have occurred. The boy would have been covertly nursed back to life by other prisoners, who would have sacrificed their meagre rations to save him. Surviving the camp experience, he would then become the requisite symbol of hope for post-war Jewry. For not more than a second of its 107 unrelenting minutes does Son of Saul indulge any such sentimental fantasies.

Here, hope was what you abandoned as you stripped naked, before being herded into "the showers." And here, Nazi medics do exactly what they would have done; they quickly and unceremoniously asphyxiate him--we watch this in a long shot-then dispatch his body to the autopsy laboratory. But this event triggers something in Saul Auslander, some forgotten reflex. And he persuades himself that the lad is his own illegitimate son. Whim? Fantasy? Fact? We never know and, in the end, it does not matter. Driven more by opaque instinct than clear reason, he resolves to give him a proper burial, complete with rabbinic prayers, and embarks on a dangerous, quixotic mission. First, he makes his way to the clinic and confronts the Jewish doctor-also a camp inmate-mandated to conduct the autopsy, pleading with him not to cut the boy. At one point, the doctor turns to him and asks, "What's your name?" The simplest of questions, except at Auschwitz.

A pause follows-a long pause in which Saul struggles to answer. You can almost see him rummaging through the archive of his own memory for the identity he once possessed, long since stripped from him and replaced by a number. And then he retrieves it. " Auslander," he says, "Saul"--and a hint of surprise registers on his solemn visage, the surprise of discovering that some vestige of humanity still exists, buried beneath layers of armour arrayed for survival. His surname, of course, means "outsider," and, in this macabre universe, he truly is, if only because this thin remnant of the human, this tiny light, still flickers within.

SEVEN DECADES after the definitive event of the twentieth century, films about the Holocaust have come to occupy their own genre. The library continues to grow-features, documentaries, pre-war intimations, post-war repercussions, churned out from France, Germany, Israel, Denmark, Poland, and several other nations. Many of these works are compelling and powerful, including Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone (2001), which deals more centrally with an historic incident that also unfolds on the margins of Son of Saul--the abortive inmate insurrection at Auschwitz in October 1944.

But I doubt there has ever been a film about the Shoah that is at once as harrowing and as immersive as this one. It is no accident that Son of Saul has been lavished with honours--an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe award, the Grand Prix at Cannes, and citations from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. From the opening sequence, we find ourselves thrust into Saul's mad, murderous, mystifying, maze-like world, a 24-7 death factory, a charnel house built on a scale scarcely conceivable. And we almost never leave it. Using a Steadicam and a tight 4:3 Academy shooting ratio, Nemes' cinematographer, Matyas Erdelv, puts the viewer squarely at the heart of Saul's merciless Sonderkommando experience.

Tellingly, Saul--played with a subdued but smouldering intensity by Hungarian poet and actor Geza Rohrig--never looks directly at the victims, refuses to make eye contact with the naked, whimpering men, women, and children he helps lead to slaughter. They--and the contingent assembly of post-Zyklon B terrors--exist largely at the periphery of his (and therefore our) vision; the imagined horror is worse than any a camera might conjure. It's the accompanying soundscape--incessant, grating, inescapable--that tells us what is happening: chugging trains belching their latest inventory of the soon-to-die, barking dogs, shrieking German officers, the roaring fires of the ovens, the piercing screams of the dying, the furious whoosh of brushes on shower floors, scraping bloodstains away. In other words, aptly, the soundtrack of Hell itself.

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The only people Saul dares to confront directly are his fellow kommandos, as hardened and brutalized as their German overseers. They stare menacingly at each other, desperate for any advantage that might alter the odds of survival. Violence and intimidation are their currencies of trade. Every whispered conversation, urgent and cryptic, is freighted with threat, the subtext being that, at any moment, for any offence, real or invented, their lives may be snuffed out.

The Sonderkommando units were the worker bees of the lagers. They greeted the endless transports of victims, escorted them to the showers, collected and ransacked their clothes for valuables, carted the bodies to the crematoria, burned them, then gathered and disposed of the ashes. This was the evil genius of the Nazi death camps-to make the Jews complicit in their own murder and other crimes, to subvert the moral law that Judaism had bestowed on Western civilization. But Sonderkommandos were dead men walking. For three or four months, they enjoyed significantly better food rations and living conditions.

Then a rotation occurred, and members of the old units were gassed and incinerated like everyone else.

THERE IS SOMETHING wholly improbable about Saul's self-appointed mission to bury the boy--to rescue the body from the clinic, hide it, locate an ordained rabbi amidst the other camp inmates, persuade him to say Kaddish, and then find a time and a place for ritual interment. The odds against success are insurmountable. But two realities propel him almost robotically forward-first, the certain knowledge that he will soon be dead himself, and second, never articulated but no less true, the recognition that there is no prevailing logic at Auschwitz. Irrationality was the foundation stone of the Nazi obsession with Jews, and the camps were always governed, if at all, by the grammars of the absurd.

And so he begins his quest, a silent, inchoate scream of his own, a journey towards the human--almost literally its last gasp--a journey mirrored by the director's minutes-long tracking shots. In the end, of course, he fails, as he must. The boy's body, swaddled in burlap, escapes from Saul's grasp as he fords a river during the prisoners' revolt and escape from the camp. A group of them somehow make it to the other side and stop briefly to rest in a forest hut--the same green forest in which the film began. It's a little too green for October, but never mind. Saul looks up and sees, standing outside, a young Polish boy, about the age his son would have been. Very tentatively, almost in slow motion, a smile unfolds on his face--the only smile on any face in the entire film. A short, ironic coda follows, a final betrayal, the universe unfolding not as it should, but as it implacably did. We will be hearing more from Laszlo Nemes.

Toronto writer MICHAEL POSNER is a former senior writer for the Globe and Mail and the author of books on politics, cinema, Mordecai Richler, and medicine.
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Author:Posner, Michael
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
Words:1468
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