Tuesday, December 29, 2015

László Nemes | Saul fia (Son of Saul)

by Douglas Messerli

László Nemes and Clara Royer (writers), László Nemes (director) Saul fia (Son of Saul) / 2015

     The Jewish Holocaust of the 20th century is perhaps something better to be talked about than shown. Most of the films which have tried to actually recreate scenes within the concentration camps (such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties or Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) quickly turn into sentimental or, given the absurdity of  events, even comical depictions that diminish the actual horror and depravity of the real experiences of those who suffered it. Yet, by simply reporting it, instead of actually showing us those monstrous acts against humankind, might we turn what we should never allow ourselves to forget into simply a list of statistics and gatherings of personal remembrances?
     In his very first film, Hungarian filmmaker, László Nemes, has chosen to put his camera in the very face of a slightly mad prisoner, Saul (Géza Röhrig), who has been chosen by the Nazis to become a Sonderkommando, Jews given special status and larger rations, who were put to work leading their fellow prisoners to the gas chambers, searching their clothing for anything of value, taking away and burning their bodies, and even disposing of their ashes.
     If these selected few might be seen as  somewhat frightening accomplices to the Nazis, they also were tortured more than their fellow prisoners with the knowledge of the evil being perpetuated and the realization that they too would soon be murdered; the Germans would never allow them to survive as witnesses of such atrocities.
       Nemes’ Son of Saul dares to begin with a horrifyingly close-up view of victims being told to undress and shower, at the very same moment they are told that they would soon find positions in the camp as craftsmen and skilled workers. In other words, the action begins with the prisoners are being lied at the very instant of their death, a second where hope is purposely obliterated.
     A moment later the Sonderkommandos, Saul among them, begin going through pockets of the hanging garments, while the walls of the showers suddenly turn into a thundering drum of terror as those within begin to gasp their last breaths.
     Nazi soldiers quickly command the Sonderkommandos pick up the “pieces,” as they describe the bodies of the dead. Within the heap of corpses they suddenly they spot one young boy still breathing. We watch the handsome young man be quickly whisked away and suffocated before being taken away for an autopsy, presumably to determine why he had survived.     Saul unpredictably follows the body, pleading with the doctor to hand over the body after he has finished. It is, he believes, his own son.
      We are never certain that the resurrected boy is Saul’s actual son—several of his fellow prisoners remind him that he had no children—but it doesn’t truly matter, since Saul is convinced or deluded into believing the boy is his, and is determined that he get a proper burial.
       So begins a nightmarish tour of the camp, as Saul, his back marked with a huge red X to signify his position, stumbles through the debris of human beings in search of a Rabbi.
       As if we were actually with him, the details of this world, its very reality, is revealed in nods and whispers in virtual Babel of languages (Hungarian, German, Yiddish, and Polish) as he and his fellow workers, pausing only for periods, burn bodies, shovel piles of ashes, and clean the Nazi’s dinner tables.
       Saul both meanders and is pushed through this claustrophobic world of human debris equally by his own insistence to see his “son” buried and by the Nazi’s demands—as well as the secret plots of his fellow prisoners, who, realizing that they may soon be chosen to join the dead, attempt to obtain guns and other materials to escape. Although they include and involve Saul in their plans, his insistence on burying his son often gets in their way.
      Indeed, at moments, things shift so quickly, it is hard to know who is in command and what precisely is happening. The director has purposely turned this world into an unknowable chaos wherein the Sonderkommandos are somewhat free to move about as long as they function to help in the deaths of the multitudes of new prisoners that, in these last days of war, are being hourly shipped in from Hungary and elsewhere. The camp is not so much a prison as it is a vast killing machine.
        At one point, after accosting a fellow worker he believes is a Greek rabbi, the man throws his shovel and himself into the nearby river, an act of suicide, since it will soon assure he will be shot.
       So filled are the gas chambers, that, when a new group of prisoners are shipped in, they are forced to undress and marched into a nearby pit where they are shot and torched in a matter of moments, the conflagration of screams and flames creating a vision of Hell worthy of Dante. Saul wanders through this crowd in search of a Rabbi, almost losing his own life in the process.
       The Rabbi he finds, we soon learn, is probably a fraud, a man who has been saved through Saul’s forcing him to wear his own jacket. In his small corner of the barracks he now has the boy’s body and the new prisoner, whose beard he cuts away with somewhat ritualistic carefulness, perhaps to protect the newcomer from looking out of place.
        Indeed, in this hectic world, we cannot be sure of anything. Like the people who inhabit it, we must interpret it each in our own way; there is no “reality” from which one might deduce the truth or any set of facts. Moment to moment, in this world, everything is turned upside down. In the very midst of finally digging a grave for his designated son, his fellow Sonderkommandos begin their escape, and Saul, carrying the corpse around his neck, is forced to run with them if he is to survive.
        Chased into the river with the others, Saul nearly drowns, losing the body of his son to the currents; he is saved, ironically, by his fraudulent Rabbi. The men gather in a forest shed to rest for a few moments, where a neighborhood boy spots them. Only Saul seems to see the young boy, and as he watches him looking in upon them, for the first time, a smile crosses Saul’s lips.
        It is difficult to know what that smile means.. Has the entire series of his obsessive acts finally come to signify something, is he joyful simply in the possibly of communicating again with the world outside, or is smiling in recognition that the boy will surely tell someone of their existence in the forest, which will assure their deaths? Is this living boy, in his deranged mind, also is son?
      As the boy moves off, the Nazis move in, having already spotted the escapees. From the distance the camera has moved with the boy, we hear the shots which assure us that the escapees have finally been put to death.
      A few hours after seeing Son of Saul, I attended a party at which I met a young student film director who had recently seen the picture. After I shared with him some of my questions about the movie, he commented: “I know this may be seem like a pointless question, but do you think the film was about Saul or the concentration camp?”
     For a few seconds, the question stymied me, but I quickly perceived what he had really asked.
     “Oh, I think the movie was about the camp, about the Holocaust, not about Saul. Saul was simply representative of one man in that camp’s existence, and his madly obsessive movements, while perhaps different from any of the others, represents those of the others as well. It doesn’t really matter that the boy is or is not his real son; he has chosen to believe it is, he has chosen to believe, to believe in something rather than the nothing with which he is surrounded—just as the others have chosen to believe in the possibility of escape.

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