In a famous passage from his memoir of Auschwitz, If This is a Man (1958), Primo Levi recounts breaking off an icicle to quench his thirst, only to have a guard snatch it away from him: ‘“Warum?” I asked him in my poor German. “Hier ist kein warum” (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.’
Here there is no why. Auschwitz has its own logic and rules, with rare exceptions. But this is also a statement that has taken on a wider meaning in discussions about the unholy machinery of the Nazi death camps. The Holocaust (the Hebrew word Shoah, meaning calamity, is preferred by Jews to describe the systematic destruction of European Jews during World War II) is a human catastrophe that continues to defy rational understanding or explanation. Attempting to make sense of it, with words or images that have been edited together for entertainment purposes, is perhaps even more distasteful and problematic. While we understand the historical conditions that enabled the Final Solution, the details – of mass deportations, of murders, of gassings, of burning bodies – exist in a realm beyond human understanding. These are events that cannot be rationalised; if we explain them, we risk justifying them.
The Holocaust also exists beyond representation. Yet almost immediately after the liberation of the camps, writers, poets, painters and filmmakers began to imagine and reimagine it, and to try to understand. Vitally, the creation of art by survivors of the camps, such as the literary memoirs produced by Elie Wiesel (Night, 1960) and Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved, 1986), constitutes an act of remembrance and a preservation of knowledge. They are essential reflections on the camps’ horrors, written by those who lived through them.
But no novel or film can convey the scope of the whole story; no words or images can ever fully capture the experience of the camps. Aesthetic choices have moral implications, and questions of appropriateness are frequently raised in relation to so-called ‘Holocaust movies’. To place a fictional character into the camps or inside a gas chamber is an empty act, one that can’t possibly convey the reality of the experience, and one that few audiences would want to watch. Charges of sentimentality and indelicacy are thrown at even the most well-intentioned and well-received films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1992) and Roberto Benigni’s dramatic comedy Life is Beautiful (1998). Both of these films reveal the futility of attempting to imagine concentration camps onscreen, and have been criticised for sanitising events and imposing a heroic, uplifting narrative on the Holocaust.
In contrast, films which take place on the narrative and temporal periphery of the camps, either before characters have entered them (Au Revoir Les Enfants, 1988) or after they have escaped (Phoenix, 2015), gather their emotional impact from what remains unseen, from allowing our imaginations to fill in the gaps. One of the first films made about the camps, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), reinforces the tension of imagining the unimaginable. This 31-minute visual essay is structured around a powerful juxtaposition: images of the now-empty camps are contrasted with chaotic scenes of war, as a dispassionate voiceover tells us, ‘No description, no picture can reveal their true dimension.’ Resnais understood the limitations of what he was doing from the outset, and made this dialectic an integral element of his haunting film.
With his extraordinary debut film, Son of Saul, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes creates a new visual language with which to approach the camps. It’s an approach that accentuates incomprehension. Nemes doesn’t show us suffering or murder. He doesn’t enter the gas chambers. Violence happens everywhere, but the action is often blurred, or positioned on the edge of the frame. This disordering has a hallucinatory quality. Shooting his film in shallow focus, Nemes’s approach respectfully obscures the atrocities of the camps, visually emphasising their essential unimaginability.
Son of Saul’s opening sequence exemplifies this approach. Our point of view is firmly rooted in the workings of a Sonderkommando unit, based at Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944 (when the transports of Jews, especially from Hungary, reached a frenzied pace as the Soviet army approached), and in the experience of one man, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig, above), as he attempts to locate a Rabbi to provide a proper burial for the boy he believes to be his son.
The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the running of the gas chambers and crematoriums to which they were assigned. These ‘special units’ occupy a singular place in history, viewed by some as willing conspirators in the killing of their fellow Jews, and by others as victims without choice. The Sonderkommando were also the ‘bearers of secrets’ (Geheimnisträger), the only prisoners with intimate, detailed knowledge of how the extermination process worked. Many took their secrets to the grave – the units were liquidated and replaced every few months – while a few lived to tell the world what they had seen and done.
Son of Saul begins in a chaotic blur. We hear birds, which suggest tranquility, but the image is out of focus and our ability to discern what is happening is deliberately confused. As the image sharpens, our eyes are drawn to a man’s face: Saul. The camera stays close to him – it follows him and focuses on his face, capturing his reactions to the horror around him. While it is often difficult to discern the specifics of what is happening, the use of sound amplifies our sense of the madness – we hear screaming, voices speaking in many tongues, desperate cries. We hear a truck, a sound we will hear often throughout the film – a new transport arriving. The Sonderkommando herd prisoners into the gas chambers, where they believe they are going to shower and be disinfected. Saul doesn’t go in, and so nor do we. He stands outside, waiting. We hear the banging on the walls and the screaming. It is only once the killing is done that Saul (and the camera) enters the chamber to remove the ‘pieces,’ as they are called, and to clean the area for the next convoy.
We watch Saul, and we see him watching. This claustrophobic intimacy is repeated throughout the film, alongside the deliberate obfuscation of the camps. Nemes problematises our position in relation to events – taking us deep into the inferno so that we see what Saul sees, after he sees it. And yet, we see almost nothing as the camera churns feverishly through the black spaces of the camp. It’s a powerful storytelling strategy, one that reminds us of the importance of looking, while also reinforcing our disconnection – from what we do not see, and from what we cannot see.
Son of Saul is also a visualisation of the idea of bearing witness, or the belief that survivors have a moral imperative to testify to what they have seen. As fewer and fewer survivors remain, the act takes on greater urgency, to preserve the memories of the dead. Implicit in this is the importance of passing knowledge from one generation to the next; we can only ever truly learn what happened at the camps from the testimonies of those who were there. As Elie Wiesel has said, ‘to listen to a witness is to become a witness too.’ We are witnesses to what Saul witnesses, implicated morally by our closeness to his experience, even if we cannot ever see it with our own eyes. The Holocaust is no longer something that happened secretly to someone else.
In its approach to this passing of memory and knowledge, Son of Saul is closer to Claude Lanzmann’s landmark nine-and-a-half hour documentary, Shoah (1985), than to any dramatic film or fictional representation that has preceded it. Lanzmann’s film is an oral history record. It contains no archival footage, only detailed interviews with survivors, guards, villagers and other witnesses – the people who were there. But even more interesting is Lanzmann’s line of questioning. He doesn’t seek answers to why the Holocaust happened; he doesn’t seek commentary or opinion. Lanzmann wants facts – what happened, what was seen. These pile up on the viewer like an unbearable weight, a devastating technique that digs deeper than any other film into the void.
Lanzmann is a long-time critic of dramatic representations of the Holocaust, noting in his criticism of Schindler’s List that the Holocaust itself is essentially unrepresentable in a fictional format. Lanzmann has praised Son of Saul for its lack of melodrama and modest approach, describing it as ‘a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando.’
By masking what we see of the camps, Nemes avoids offering either an overt commentary or a fictionalised point of view. Rather, he suggests that Saul has shielded himself from the slaughter with a sort of willful blindness, an antidote to his declaration that ‘I wish I understood nothing.’ Son of Saul refuses sentimentality. It conjures a season in hell that audiences will find a harrowing and gruelling experience, and one we should not congratulate ourselves for enduring. It’s an important reminder that even when we look there is only so much we can know, and that trying to understand why the Holocaust happened will continue to confound us.
Son of Saul is released nationally today, and we have three double passes to give away thanks to Sony Australia. To win, send your name and email address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Son of Saul tickets’ before 9am Monday 29 February.