38-year-old Hungarian director, László Nemes’ Oscar award-winning Holocaust-horror-pic “Son of Saul” is not easy to watch. Of course it is not intended to be easy to watch.
Nemes does a good job of horrifying. He does a good job portraying the suffocating, de-humanizing world that must have been Auschwitz-Birkenau. He gives a realistic and powerful portrayal of the machinery of death created by the Nazis in their crazed attempt to rid the world of the “Jewish plague.”
Nemes portrays what it might have been like to live in a world of utter chaos, where fear, distrust, and violence reign supreme. The main character, in fact, almost the only character that has any real presence in the movie, the Hungarian Jew Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), stumbles through a surreal landscape in which most of the detail is out of focus and the viewer is constantly disoriented.
There is almost no plot to the film. Saul works as part of the Sonderkommando, the death-camp prisoner squad forced to keep the machinery of extermination operating. In the process of performing his grisly tasks Saul discovers a boy who has miraculously survived the lethal Zyklon B that was normally an inevitable instrument of death. When the boy is subsequently suffocated by a Nazi doctor, Saul sets out on a wild and improbable search to find a Rabbi willing to say the Kaddish and oversee the ceremonial burial of the boy’s remains.
Despite the title of the film, Saul’s relationship to the boy is not entirely clear, nor does it matter. Saul exhibits no particular emotional attachment to the child. It is not at all clear what drives Saul to seek a proper burial for the boy.
Reviewer David Edelstein believes that, in accompanying Saul on his journey,
We are trailing a madman.
We’re not just trapped in an extermination camp. We’re also trapped in the head of a fiercely driven but unaware and unreflective figure, uninteresting not because he’s mad but because his madness is, like the film itself, monotonous.
Edelstein goes on however to suggest a powerful motivation for Saul’s actions suggesting,
he has, of course, a larger kind of sanity. Unable to deaden himself any longer to the horror around him, Saul has unconsciously devised a way to reconnect with the world he once knew, with its age-old system of values and abiding faith.
This is the motivation behind all religious liturgy, ritual, and symbolism. We engage in religious acts in order to open to a world beyond the bleak horror that is so often characteristic of much of life. We celebrate communal acts of remembering in an attempt to reconnect with “age-old systems of values and abiding faith.”
Sadly, if this is the intention of director László Nemes, he fails to explore this deeper journey of faith with any focus or depth. The film ends with a contrived whimper. Evil, violence, and horror triumph. The slight smile Saul manages just before the end, is based on an irrelevant illusion. It has no bearing in reality. Saul gives no evidence of connecting with any higher reality. There is no serious indication that he has transcended the horror of his circumstances or found a place of genuine hope in his heart. Redemption seems to be beyond the grasp of this film.
In an interview that accompanies his movie, Nemes claims that it was 10 years in the making. This means he began ruminating this tale when he was just 28-years-old. It may be that it takes a little longer than 10 years for a film-maker to find his way to a vision of redemption in the desperate darkness that was Auschwitz-Birkenau.
nb: if one is interested in following a true journey towards redemption, one might do better to follow the journey André Schwarz-Bart portrays in his beautiful novel, The Last of the Just.
Having told a tale every bit as painful as the tale Nemes sought to portray, Schwarz-Bart ends with a gentle transcendent image of hope and light:
Yes, at times one’s heart could break in sorrow. But often too, preferably in the evening, I can’t help thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive somewhere, I don’t know where…. Yesterday, as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to the spot, a drop of pity fell from above upon my face. But there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky… There was only a presence.
It is to this “presence” that ritual seeks to open our hearts, allowing us to discover that there is a transcendent reality that can fall “from above upon” us, even in the midst of the most terrible suffering.