A Voice for the Future
In Lászlo Nemes’ Son of Saul the commonplaces of suffering are abandoned in favour of the experience of a man trying to retain a semblance of humanity in a dehumanized world.
Lászlo Nemes, Son of Saul, 2015.
"That which was in a being takes the place we allow it. The dead can’t defend themselves and rely on our goodwill. They count on our resourcefulness, on the voice inside us that resists our natural hastiness and which, as we are about to move on to the next thing, protests and demands that we stay, as witnesses to the invisible". (Alain Finkielkraut, Une voix vient de l'autre rive)
Despite all the descriptions, testimonies, artistic renderings and even authentic photographs, can we ever come close to the horror of the Holocaust, without it being merely a civilizational norm of respect? What reaction are we trying to provoke, for the evocation of the tragedy to complete our cognitive and emotional spectre? Is it ethically justified to expect personal gain from representations of the utmost destruction of humanity? Still, as a place of the unspoken and of the never fully thought, the Holocaust has marked art and theory of the entire century. When the unthinkable became possible, nothing could be seen in the same way. Anticipated by artists perceptive enough to foresee the threat, from Kafka’s world of destructive forms to the transformation of reality that allowed Bruno Schulz’s murder to happen, terror might sometimes be comprehended in conjunction with art. Rationally facing the immensity of horror seems paradoxical. Primo Levi, Imre Kertész or Adolf Frankl are some of the many who have transformed the experience through artistic imagination, insisting on active confrontation that affects the others as well. Photographs and artworks made under direct threat of death also speak of resistance to dehumanization. They are a call to reject forgetting, while the submersion in the experience of time once more reveals itself as the core of humanity.
This is where film stands out, having the most suggestive means of expression, simultaneously open for a realistic approach to the explication of suffering and a subtle authorial style. Due to its characteristics and its wide availability, film is fraught with dangers of misuse, of serving particular or manipulative causes through the exploitation of one’s deepest fears. The Jewish tragedy began its transfer to film right after the end of World War II and remains a powerful topic today, whether the films deal with the feeling of responsibility for the suppressed moments of European past or an attempt at cathartic atonement. Last year’s foreign film Oscar winner Ida, by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, indirectly questions the Polish Christians’ denied blame for Jewish executions. Another well-received movie, Petzold’s Phoenix, reconstructs post-war Germany and the impossibility of coexistence of the victims and the accused. The sufferings of WWII are obviously still fascinating, and reveal new perspectives of the seemingly overcome reality. The award-winning Son of Saul by Lászlo Nemes makes a particular contribution to the discussion, using its technique to prevent - in advance - any kind of negative fascination in the viewer and to avoid grabbing attention by fuelling repressed voyeurism. The camera focuses exclusively on one character, moving the story from the general to an isolated moment of personal survival, while the scenes of violence are pushed to the margins, and return to us through sound.
The start of Son of Saul’s regular distribution in Zagreb coincided with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration and Ophir Lévy’s lecture Is the Discussion of the Representation of the Holocaust on Film Over? – Thoughts on Son of Saul, organized by the Croatian French Institute and the Multimedia Institute. Not only is the discussion far from over, but the implications and the specific positions of director and viewer are also rethought each time when the traumatic and historically pretty distant event is approached. As Lévy pointed out, the representation of the Holocaust is directly connected to the time when it is created. The Polish and Russian films from the 1940s treat victims in a way that is completely inappropriate today.
It is easy to expose detailing suffering and violence for violence’s sake as an attack on dignity, while it’s clear that new regimes used the Holocaust as a means of propaganda. Generally speaking, most theoreticians will find the attempts to convey the entirety of the Holocaust pretentious, resulting in inevitable victimization on one side, and collective guilt on the other. Shifting focus to the individual destiny overcomes abstraction and stresses how easy it is for savagery to replace social norms. However, departing from historically specific circumstances may generate misleading images, as is the case with Hollywoodization and simplification of complex problematics. Lévy believes our job is to build a critical distance and weave in new insights we’ve gained with time. Working on a film gives us the possibility of commenting. Pure realism can, due to its lack of sensitivity or subtlety, turn into simplification. Ever since Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the point is found in that which is not shown.
Son of Saul is a film that reveals by not showing. Unlike in the rich Hollywood productions, where tragedy can feel impersonal, the commonplaces of Jewish suffering are abandoned here in favour of the individual experience of a man trying to retain a semblance of humanity in a dehumanized world. This is not a story of escapism, as the burden of historical events literally occupies the hero, but Nemes chooses a technique that never brings mass crimes to the fore. Just like photographs isolate one moment from the flow of events, leaving what happened before and after open, the perception of the final days in the concentration camp in subjectified. The fact that Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the unit that participates in the efficient implementation of systemic extermination, grants him a status that differs from the usual representation of a Jew as victim.
Here, however, this is taken much farther, to the final consequence of dehumanization and a perverse reversal of action, the goal of which becomes self-destruction. Perhaps Hannah Arendt broke down the taboo of not speaking, by questioning those on both sides, emphasizing the responsibility of the interpreter and witness in a factually correct analysis of a careful staging of death, but that staging is still beyond reason. As he himself has pointed out, Nemes relied on authentic photographs taken in Auschwitz-Birkenau in his representation of the Holocaust, and from there, from a specific template, built a fiction based on direct implications of what the camp is.
Georges Didi-Huberman reacted to Son of Saul in an open letter. In the still relevant debate on ethical and other dilemmas about how to explore sensitive topics, Didi-Huberman finds this movie successful in its attempt. Indeed, the fact that terror is not explicitly shown does not diminish its presence. He is fascinated by the director's strategy of giving room to the historical, but within the story of personal survival. Saul's attempt to bury at least one body in the hell of the concentration camp is considered a symbolic act of leaving a trace. Both Lévy and Didi-Huberman, and most probably the viewers, noticed an act of resistance, defying passive resignation to death. According to them, the resistance is already evident in the act of documentation, which, judging by the preserved artefacts, was not unusual. Son of Saul uses its parallel narrative strategies to thematise resistance; both personal, on the individual level of struggle for humanity, which does allow death, but does not allow for it to be forgotten, and collective, in the prisoners’ organized rebellion.
Saul, driven by an unrealistic fixation, is trying to bury the body of a boy who he claims was his son. At the same time, he is sabotaging any productive relationships he could have with the living. In a brief but suggestive scene of weapon smuggling, we learn about Saul’s intimate relationship with a female inmate, and are surprised by Saul's reaction - escape and an even more panicked insistence on irrational ideas. Obviously, in contrast to the idea of individual resistance to absurdity and an attempt to condense any remains of humanity, we can talk about metaphysical redemption of guilt we feel about our loved ones (hence the idea of son as a symbol). It is guilt over the collective in whose killing and oppression Saul is forced to participate. This irrational guilt manifests itself in his inability to protect them, and is activated at the moment of killing said boy. Saul is active while following the idea, but in the paradoxical reality his attempts result in self-destruction. Looking for salvation in the ritual, which in itself implies suppressing free will, while evidently sacrificing the living for the salvation of the dead, is a manifestation of his irreconcilable position. He will at the same time radicalise the insane Nazi idea of working in the death industry, pose the question of the possibility of life after accumulating a burden of guilt, and also inadvertently obstruct a realistic attempt at rebellion. It seems like rebellion arrives too late.
An interpretation of Son of Saul as an allegory or even a fantastic episode in the chaos of destruction might see promising, if the film’s structure and naturalism didn’t refute it. The raw camera technique positions us directly in the heart of the events, counting on our primal unease in trying to identify with the hero, whose insensitivity to his fellow sufferers and escape into fantasy are products of the most extreme form of alienation. Son of Saul may as well be a filmed analysis, breaking the usual value system that differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable. The concentration camp destroys humanity on a much more malicious level, as a carefully developed structure intent on gradually crushing that which is essentially human. Saul’s actions challenge our rationality and the more it protests, the closer we are to an authentic moment of understanding.
And it is precisely the fact that the destruction of all human relationships is so successful that is the most disturbing in the Nazi death camp. Despite all attempts to theoretically grasp it, the moment at which socially created prerequisites transition into an absolute negation of life remains elusive. The power of ideology and conformity is a question which, given contemporary totalitarian and extremist tendencies in Europe, completely entitles artists to experiment with the audience and their bourgeois feelings of "righteousness". A counterargument to the twisted objection that the Holocaust is given the spotlight at the expense of other tragedies is the fact that destruction was nowhere else so consistently realized, and man nowhere else reduced to animal instincts to such an extent. Let us not forget that Saul is symbolically carrier of the dead, whose voice is projected into the future, in line with what Claude Lanzmann says is the task of all, at least when it comes to the Holocaust.