Monday, February 29, 2016
Son of Saul
This year’s Foreign Film Oscar went to Son of Saul, a first feature from Hungarian Laszlo Nemes which follows an Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz through several hellish hours. We know almost nothing about Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) except that he is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the movement of other prisoners into the gas chamber and with the subsequent disposal of their remains. One day Saul finds a young boy barely alive after the gas; the boy dies during an examination but Saul believes the boy to be his illegitimate son and decides to bury him. The rest of the film is his quest to do so. Much of the discussion around Son of Saul has been about Laszlo Nemes’s shooting style; for almost the entire film Nemes shoots Saul in close-up or shows us only what the character sees. This choice means we only hear scattered references to what other prisoners are doing - a group is planning an uprising - and that various atrocities take place out of focus, at the edge of the frame, or are conveyed only through sound. Other prisoners are barely individualized except for Warszawski (Levente Molnar), a man whose lack of understanding of Saul’s behavior seems to represent the feelings of everyone else.
Son of Saul is not an easy watch. Nemes’s determination to avoid false uplift or aesthetic distance (there’s not a master shot to be found here) keeps us firmly within the realm of Saul’s perceptions. That’s a frightening place to be but also a tiring one, as Rohrig’s inexpressiveness makes Saul’s refusal to engage with his fellow prisoners hard to read. Whether the boy is actually Saul’s son is called into question - another prisoner tells Saul “You have no son.” - but a bigger issue is the film’s lack of a moral framework. Nemes wants to put the poignancy of Saul’s desire to bury his son in opposition to the other prisoners’ efforts to organize and fight, but the film only sets up the situation without investigating it. Indeed, it isn’t clear why the other men would enlist Saul in their plans for an uprising; his mission to transport materials that the men need goes wrong when he wanders into a group of new prisoners in search of a rabbi. The other prisoners in Son of Saul haven’t forsaken religion; the first rabbi that Saul approaches tells him he will say the Kaddish for his son but that a proper burial is logistically impossible. But Saul’s fellow prisoners see survival as an imperative that Saul never seems to consider. We’re told in the opening titles that members of the Sonderkommando were executed after a few months as a matter of course, and Warszawski and the other prisoners feel their time running out. “You failed the living for the dead,” Warszawski says to Saul, and later when another prisoner comes back for Saul during the escape it’s a pointed contrast to the image of Saul almost being dragged underwater by his son’s remains.
I recently watched another Oscar-winning film set in a concentration camp, Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters. That 2007 film told the story of “Operation Bertrand,” a Nazi plan to destabilize Allied economies by flooding them with counterfeit currency. The Jews forced to produce the fake money lived in relative comfort in the camp, and the film establishes their role in the infrastructure of the Nazi war effort while also dramatizing why they needed to resist. In Son of Saul, giving the audience the eyes of one prisoner - the film most definitely does not “get inside his head” - heightens the emotion but also elides the particular systematic nature of the Nazi evil, and that is a mistake I can’t ignore. When we last see Saul he is experiencing a moment of connection that the film hasn’t earned. While I respect Nemes’s stylistic choices I also don’t think they work; Son of Saul is finally a film where artistic ambition gets in the way of lessons that we should never stop learning.