Thursday, February 18, 2016

'Son of Saul,' inside the Holocaust

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes's Son of Saul pitches us into the fires of hell.

A first-time director, Nemes gives his debut film one of the more unsettling openings in some time. The movie begins when a figure emerges from a background that's been thrown out of focus.

We soon realize that we're in a Nazi death camp -- unnamed but assumed to be Auschwitz/Birkenau. The camera hovers close to this figure, a man who's sometimes photographed from behind so that we can see the red "X" that's been painted on his jacket.

The "X" identifies him as a member of the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced to do the dirty work of extermination. Members of the Sonderkommando hurried unsuspecting victims to the gas chambers, watched as they stripped off their clothes, and stood outside the gas chambers listening to the sounds of panic and terror once people realized they were being asphyxiated. The Sonderkommando also cleaned up the gas chambers before the arrival of the next victims.

The man at the center of the film's organized chaos is Saul, a stoic figure about whom we know little. Saul works quickly and already seems to have absorbed the great lesson of the camps: Dehumanization is essential in an environment so ghastly that it defies ordinary belief.

Using close-ups, a hand-held camera and vigorously refusing to contextualize anything, Nemes treats the victims as anonymous figures in a drama over which they have no control. He makes us feel what it might have been like to find oneself waking up in a Nazi-ruled hell, adapting to a situation in which the rules are entirely arbitrary.

Saul scurries to stay out of the way of his tormentors. He listens to whispered conversations among his colleagues in misery.

Transports of Hungarian Jews are arriving at the camp; the extermination of Hungry's Jews occurred toward the end of the war, which gives us a rough time line. We also learn that Saul is a Hungarian Jew.

In this harrowing opening, Nemes plays his strongest card: He seems to want to make a Holocaust film that attempts to shatter the boundary between experience and observation. Presumably, he wants us to feel the numbness that may have overtaken Saul in this environment of unrelieved terror. By staying close to Saul and never allowing us to orient ourselves, Nemes insists that we be overwhelmed.

Powerful as it is, this approach has limits. It doesn't necessarily add to what we already know about the Holocaust -- at least for those who've read widely and seen some of the many excellent Holocaust documentaries that are available.

When I was watching Son of Saul, I wondered if I'd gone too far by writing the phrase "Holocaust porn" in my notebook; the more realistic the suffering, the more exploitative it risks becoming.

But this is less a criticism of the filmmakers than it is of us. Why do we want to see the Holocaust graphically reenacted? Are our imaginations so impoverished that we insist that the terrors of the gas chambers be visualized? Have we not already heard the testimony of the few surviving members of the Sonderkommando?

Although it attempts to deemphasize story, Son of Saul has a narrative. It's realistic, but also, a fiction.

During a session in the gas chamber, a boy momentarily survives. Saul decides to focus his entire attention on finding a rabbi and giving the boy a real burial. He won't let this boy's body go up in smoke. He eventually says the boy is his son, but the movie casts doubt on whether that's true.

Saul engages in an act of concentrated defiance that separates him from his fellow prisoners, and his madly focused behavior works against another and perhaps more important act of rebellion.

Some of the members of the Sonderkommando are staging a revolt. Saul's insistence on finding a rabbi constantly bumps up against the conspirators who are doing their best to blow up a crematorium.

It doesn't take much reflection to realize that looking for a place to bury a body and for a rabbi are acts of madness in the camp environment. It's as if Saul has lost his sense of where he is. Maybe that's what he's trying to do.

Saul is played by Geza Rohrig, who is not a trained actor. Rohrig has a striking face, but one that reveals little. This makes Son of Saul a little opaque, as if Nemes wants his film to be difficult to read.

Moreover, Nemes's refusal to broaden the film's view -- he gives us no overview of the camp and never shows its overall layout -- suggests that he's trying to recreate the time before the Holocaust even had a name.

That's part of the film's strategy, and it works, but it also tends to turn Son of Saul into an increasingly numbing collection of atrocities that form the background for Saul's search.

These include scenes in which Jews are rounded up and shot next to a pit because the gas chambers are too busy or a scene in which Saul shovels ashes of murdered Jews into a nearby lake, the industrial-scaled waste of Nazi genocide.

The Nazis refer to their victims as "pieces," and the film, perhaps unwittingly, adopts this view, as well. The victims become part of a murderous blur.

As I mentioned earlier, Son of Saul made me wonder anew whether it's possible to make a fictional Holocaust film without distortion. I wish I had a definitive answer. I don't.

All I'll say is this: I've visited Auschwitz/Birkenau twice. There's a place in Birkenau where you can see a photograph of women and children who were waiting to be ushered into a nearby gas chamber. The photo is located under a clump of trees, next to what's left of a crematorium that the Nazis destroyed before they fled Birkenau.

You can look at the faces of those women for clues about what they knew, what they felt in their final moments, but any answers you find may say more about you than about them.

That place is quiet now, and the quiet deepens everything you know about what happened there; in that quiet, you wrestle with an indigestible mixture of rage and sorrow.

I tell you this to explain why Son of Saul struck me as the equivalent shouting in a cemetery; I think I understand what Nemes has attempted to do, but couldn't overcome my uneasiness about his film.

On its simplest level, Son of Saul tells the story of a hopeless man trying to do something good by attempting to take the anonymity out of mass murder -- even if he doesn't know that that's what he's trying to do.

Yet for all its frenzied realism, I'm not sure that Saul's story isn't one more attempt by a filmmaker to impose structure on an event so massive it refuses to submit to art: I can't insist on it, but a terrible and chastening silence might have been the better alternative.

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