Son of Saul
2015 // Hungary // László Nemes
Hungarian director László Nemes made his first feature film in depicting the horrific Holocaust, a still essential and poignant subject that needs a sensitive balance in storytelling and its allegory. Human being are still in shock of comprehending the evilness and brutality fallen upon the Jewish in the concentration camps. Since Alain Resnais’s documentary Night and Fog (1955) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1959) in the 50s, there are no less films in handling the Holocaust with bold direct visual. All in all depiction of Holocaust should not be made or regarded as cheap sentimentality or emotional manipulation (yes I’m implying Life is Beautiful (1997)), as Theodor Adorno once said “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But as much as Holocaust is a taboo subject, it’s also a significant historical tragedy that one have to familiarise with in order to avoid repetition. So the question is what does Son of Saul, László Nemes’s first feature, bring forth in such area, thus any artistic value beyond the statement.
Being hailed as a masterpiece by critics after its premiere at Cannes International Film Festival last year, and the subsequent awards of Grand Prix in Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film in Oscar, one may have the idea of praising the film as simply a duty. But to me, it’s a process of interpretation: from the immediate confusion after the film ends, to continuous reimagining with certain scenes which haunt me all day long. Eventually the various thoughts resolve into a single acknowledgement, that Son of Saul achieve something spectacular out of undeniably horrific circumstances.
The story, at first sight, is simple and straightforward, an Auschwitz concentration camp prisoner Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) has to find a Rabbi and bury his “son” against all odds. But there are mutiple layers that one have to unearth to have a deeper understanding of the film. First and foremost, one have to remember Saul’s identity as a Sonderkommandos in the concentration camp. The film opens with a title card explaining the meaning of Sonderkommandos. In this passage I would cite from Wikipedia, “Sonderkommandos were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust”. In other words, Sonderkommandos are the “traitors” that “assisted” the Nazi, their enemy, in killing their own people by no choice. They were apparently essential for the Nazi in the execution of the Final Solution, when they were deemed useless or harmful, they would be executed as well. So what would Saul feel when he sent his fellow countrymen or Jewish people, including women and children, into the “shower room”, without telling them the truth that it is a gas chamber? Obviously he would not risk his life in the process with a zero chance of saving a single life. From the look of Saul’s face, it’s a man stripped out of emotion and humanity, that’s the only way to survive physically and mentally, even though it’s temporary.
Hence, there’s a dissociation between the mentality of Saul and his hellish surroundings that kept him from going insane. Saul’s external interactions were kept to a minimum as simply following orders from both the superior officers like the Kapos and SS, and his fellow prisoners who had their secret agenda of escaping. There were multiple moments that Saul declined an order from his fellow prisoners as he had his own personal mission to achieve, yet he was still being pushed into the action without his will. Saul was the epitome of Jewish people who couldn’t control his fate in the matters of life and death. As Saul said in the later half of the film, they were “dead” already. Dead could be interpreted as the lost of the basic right to live. Therefore, Saul’s decision, with a strong insistence, to bury his son in the present of a Rabbi should be interpreted differently.
There is an ambiguity of the true nature of the dead boy, was he really the son of Saul? And did Saul really have a son? There is no definitive answers to both questions, so the formidable will of burying the body should not be viewed solely as a reflection of ethical relationship. Otherwise it would be completely insensible to bury a body in a place where the living could be dead in any minutes, and the dead were described as “pieces” and burned into ashes. To Saul, the decision to bury a body, presumably his son, is a way to regain his autonomy. The autonomy of preserving the human dignity, as the living were already sentenced to death, Saul ought to keep the dignity of a dead boy/son. Thus in reciprocal extrapolation, his own “living” dignity could be preserved too. The paradoxical action is also an act of affirmation of the Jewish culture and religion (even though finding a Rabbi for a burial is actually “incorrect”), Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jewish, not only the people but their history, culture and religion. Thus Saul’s insistence of finding a Rabbi, reasonable or not, was a form of rebellion, a statement that “you can’t eradicate the evidence of our living”.
Once I get passed the frustration of witnessing the stubbornness of Saul in finding a Rabbi, once I interpreted it as an act of nobleness, everything coalesced lucidly, together with the controversial visual techniques. Eighty percent of the shots (which I calculated roughly from impression) in Son of Saul consisted of the close-up or medium shot of Saul, his face and his back were often in-focus and crystal clear. László Nemes and the cinematographer Mátyás Erdély used the 40mm lens to provide a shallow field of depth, meaning the background is often out-of-focus, blurred. In addition, the choice of using aspect ratio of 1.375:1 instead of the wider 1.85:1 or the CinemaScope 2.35:1, provides a boxed-like field of vision, thus limits the background information we could gather (a more daring and compatible example would be Mommy (2014) which used 1:1 aspect ratio, literally a square). When there was a clear background, it’s often a point-of-view shot or the sight visualized by Saul. The motion of the camera is often accompanied by the motion of Saul as taken by a hand-held camera, reminiscent of the realistic style of Dardenne Brothers.
The subjectivity is thus enhanced as we the audience are literally entrapped in Saul’s body, his abominable surroundings and the inhuman happenings are all, out of the mercy of the directors, left to our own previewing knowledge of Holocaust and the instantaneous imagination. The delineation of the subject (Saul) and the background supports the dissociation of Saul’s mentality with the surrounding thematically. So we don’t get a clear view of the pile of naked bodies in the gas chamber, instead the surrounding sounds provided all the essential hints for our imagination. From the immediate opening shot, we heard all the human mourning, sounds of hitting or whipping, German officers yelling or shouting, trucks engines rumbling. Visually we only see Saul walking passed a group of prisoners, like a shepherd guiding a herd of animals. But by our ears, we heard the chaos, the suffering, the inescapable fate of the prisoners. László Nemes had worked as an assistant director with Béla Tarr, a Hungarian auteur whose works are marked by philosophical elements and extreme long shots. Though Nemes is not as extreme as Tarr, it’s not surprising to find the length of shots are often longer than a minutes. With the strong subjectivity by the limited field of vision, long average length of shot and the intense use of sound, the ultimate sense of present is literally insufferable.
The search of Rabbi by Saul provided an excuse to show the various parts of the concentration camp narratively. From the changing room where the prisoners stripped all their clothes to the gas chamber where they met their fate, from the furnace where dead bodies were burnt to the riverside where pile of human ash being thrown down the stream, from the pit where the Jews were shot and piled up to the autopsy room, László Nemes boldly portrayed the darkest human history without any cheesy melodrama or ridiculous child-like deception (yes I’m implying Life is Beautiful again). His artistic choice of limited field of vision and profound utilization of sounds elevated a Holocaust film to a monument of humanity. Even though Saul may find his determination futile at the end, but human lives and remembers, like the peasant boy appeared at the end of the film, he would learn the history eventually, even though human had paid a huge price.