SON OF SAUL – REVIEW – How do you make a film about the Holocaust?
It’s really difficult. The Holocaust runs against everything that Hollywood does well. You can’t glamorize and you can’t give it a happy ending. The numbers involved make it epic, but the experience was intimate, personal and devastating. To give it a narrative arc is to rationalize it and by doing so give it meaning. And giving the Holocaust meaning is morally dubious if not downright wrong. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is brilliantly made, but focuses our attention on an up-lifting outcome. The ghosts of the millions who weren’t on the list haunt the film and are glimpsed as extras. Life is Beautiful sets itself up as a heartbreaking fable of a father’s love for his son, but the moral of the story is to lie, to deny and ultimately blank out the Holocaust as if it was nothing more than a bump in an otherwise straight road. The obvious answer might be to go the documentary route as in Shoah, but reliance on documentary is not to be trusted, especially as a retreat of art. Documentaries themselves hide their own artfulness after all.
Which is all to say that László Nemes’ Son of Saul, the Hungarian film written by Nemes and Clara Royer, is an original treatment of the Holocaust. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, working as a Sonderkommando member, tasked with getting the Jews into the gas chambers, disposing of their goods, burning their bodies, cleaning everything up and then waiting for the next train of victims. The entire film is focused on Saul’s face as he trudges from one task to the other, his whole being shrunk to a miniscule size as he tries to shut out the horrors around him. The need for a narrative is so strong, even for the damned, so that when Saul finds a body among the dead who he takes to be his son, we don’t know whether this is his own wishful thinking, or a miraculous coincidence. It is also analogous to the film’s own need for a narrative to take us through the otherwise unimaginable.
Nothing is easy about the film. There is no hero to cling to. Our central protagonist is both a victim of the Holocaust and a workman who keeps the system moving. The brutality is at once mundane and routine, but occasionally feels like Hell itself in all its horrific grandeur. There is very little here that is comforting. And perhaps this is its abiding worth. The stubborn difficulty of the film, its cussed decision not to stare but to try, throughout most of its running time, to look the other way; its refusal to romanticize and promote survival; is almost a tacit admission that you can’t make a film about the Holocaust, but still you have to try.