“This Way for the Transformative Cinema, Ladies and Gentlemen”
The new Holocaust film, Son of Saul (2016) opens with an astonishing shot. Completely out of focus, we see some people in the background, perhaps digging near a tree. After what seems like an eternity, to the point that one considers going to tell the projectionist that the image is out of focus, a man approaches the camera, walking into focus. We come to learn his name is Saul (Geza Rohrig), a lowly member of the Sonderkommando, assigned to clean the crematoria at Auschwitz in between the mass killings.
The entire film is an aesthetic tour de force. The camera hovers at Saul’s back, with a 4mm lens that produces a narrow field of vision, such that we only have a vague sense of what’s going on beyond the one-foot radius around the main character. Architect Daniel Libeskind designed the Jewish Museum Berlin along axes of disorientation in an attempt to give visitors the sense of alienation felt by the disenfranchised during the Nazi reign of terror. First-time film director Laszlo Nemes, a 38-year old Hungarian, re-invents cinematic language in order to deliver this sense of disorientation in a cinematic reconstruction of Auschwitz.
I don’t think my prose can possibly capture the visceral experience it is to watch Son of Saul. I have had precious few experiences in a theater where I was quite literally struggling to understand not just the content of the images I was watching, but the very language in which they were being delivered. Imagine watching a film by Andrei Tarkovsky without having previously watched any movies by Sergei Eisenstein, or reading James Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing what a 19th century novel is.
The closest I can come to describing the experience is to invoke the story of Sol Worth’s Through Navajo Eyes (1966). The anthropologist gave Native Americans film cameras in order to express themselves cinematically. When one of the films was deemed incomprehensible by other Navajo spectators, Worth asked the confused viewers why that was the case. They replied that the films were not spoken in their language. These were silent films. Worth discovered that the maker of the problematic film had not grown up on the Navajo reservation, and thus was in fact speaking a different cinematic language.
Nemes refuses virtually every basic tenet of conventional cinematic style in Son of Saul. Filmmakers typically render dialogue by cutting between reverse angle over-the-shoulder two-shots. Because the camera is so close to Saul’s back, we often merely see the giant red X that identifies him as a worker and not fodder for the gas chamber. If we are lucky, we see a part of Saul’s face, or some part of his interlocutor, but rarely the two together, thus depriving us of our fundamental spectatorial behavior, studying faces in order to decide upon meaning.
Hollywood films rely on the classical breakdown of space, cutting from establishing long shots, to medium shots, and then into close-ups. Virtually every shot in Son of Saul is a close-up; the film never allows us to overcome our spatial disorientation. Carl Theodor Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), also shot entirely in close-ups, and Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (1947), a continuous string of point-of-views shots, are Son of Saul’s cinematic forebears, but this new film makes them both look like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943).
Perhaps the best way to explore the cinematic virtuosity of Son of Saul is to compare it to a short story with which it shares a plot, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” (1948). Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski presents a first-person narrator who is assigned to clean the cattle cars after the Nazis take the victims to the crematoria. With stark realism and brutality, Borowski’s unnamed narrator demonstrates that even allowing for full Nazi culpability, evil also lies within himself, forced to betray every civilized principle in order to survive. In the story’s most horrifying scene, a woman just out of the train car runs away frantically from her screaming child. A Russian prisoner chokes her to death and throws her body onto the truck headed to the ovens. A Nazi congratulates the Russian for his good work. Our narrator does not, cannot react.
The damage being done to the narrator’s humanity is so severe, Borowski demonstrates, even the victims are in better shape than he. A woman knowingly headed to her own death stops and takes pity on the narrator: “My poor boy, [the woman] whispers and smiles” (40). In Borowski’s unrelenting tale, there is no one with whom to identify. Our choices are Nazi animals, already dead victims, or monstrously complicit workers whose each new day is bought by service to the devil.
Despite telling virtually the same story as “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Son of Saul produces a completely different effect. In an inversion of the normative relationship between literature and film—cinema tells too much because it cannot help but see, while writing can cloak the truth behind words—what Borowski unequivocally delivers, Nemes’ film leaves ambiguous. By hiding behind Saul’s back the entire film, we end the film with very little reliable information other than the fact that Nazis are daily killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children in ovens. When a guard asks Saul his name, he replies “Auslander,” the German word for foreigner. Is this his last name? It could be, but it seems far more likely a description of his dislocation than a marker of his parents.
The film’s narrative concerns a young boy who miraculously survives breathing in the Zyklon B gas. The Nazis have to summon a “doctor” to come suffocate the boy, as their chemistry of death has in this one case failed. As his final act of meaning, Saul risks everything to obsessively pursue a Jewish burial for the boy. When people question him as to why, he replies, “He is my son.” This (most likely) lie propagates a stunning sequence of unreliability: the rabbi Saul secures to perform the burial rite is most certainly not a rabbi. Even Borowski, as radical a writer about the Holocaust as has ever been, doesn’t ask us to question the images his words summon. The short story’s train cars are really full of dying people, the Nazis are truly stealing all of their hidden gold, and the narrator certainly vomits when he sees a Nazi shoot a young girl in the head after she has become mentally unhinged and begins walking in a circle in the camp.
For its part, Son of Saul produces an allegorical experience that insists Saul is correct to risk his life and believe what are obviously lies in order to try to bury the boy as his final statement to the world. Nemes’ film redeems Borowski by inventing a way out the conundrum experienced by the short story’s first-person narrator. How does one recapture one’s humanity when evil has overwhelmed all of us? Saul latches on to an obsessive idea every bit as absurd as the Nazi attempt to extinguish the lives of millions of people.
Given that Nazi atrocities have murdered off all meaning in the world, Saul risks his life to save the “rabbi.” Saul takes off his jacket with the red X on the back, the only material object in the world keeping him alive, and gives it to the perplexed man. Saul almost gets sent to his death because in his naked state, he is indistinguishable from the victims being herded to their doom. Why does Saul take this risk? Saul’s action redeems the devastation Borowski realistically presents. The short story begins: “All of us walk around naked” (29). In one of the author’s many ironies, the Nazis are using Zyklon B to delouse their clothing. Mere happenstance keeps the Sonderkommando workers and the crematoria victims apart. In Son of Saul, clothing proves an unreliable marker of this separation.
The ambiguities of the film are unrelenting. In order to get help for his burial mission, Saul agrees to aid the resistance procure supplies from the women’s work camp. When Saul gets a small packet of gunpowder from a woman, she tries to touch his hands tenderly. He refuses to allow the moment of human contact. Is this woman his wife? Is she merely desperate for any human contact? Either possibility makes more sense than the boy who lived being his son. Son of Saul works in a way virtually no other Holocaust film has for the precise reason that its narrative ambiguities, coupled with its reinvention of cinematic grammar, produce for us a disorientation that desperately tries to approach what it might have been like to have one’s physical, moral, and emotional world ripped away.
The film holds its most potent ambiguity for the end. Saul escapes the camp amidst the chaos of the resistance’s rebellion. He carries on his back a body wrapped similarly to his “son.” Is this the same body? It seems no more likely to be the case than that the man was a rabbi or his wife is working in the camp next door. With bloodhounds chasing the escapees, Saul jumps with this unidentified body into a river. He almost drowns trying to keep himself and the body afloat. He finally fails: the river’s strong current pulls the body away from Saul as he washes up on the opposite shore. As in his securing of a rabbi, Saul fails at most of what he attempts.
Instead, Saul, not the boy, is reborn on the other side of the river. He and some fellow escapees hide in an empty barn. As Saul sits resting, a blond boy discovers them while walking in the forest. In the film’s most moving shot, Saul stares speechless at the boy, his and our first indication that there is any human life left in the world outside of Auschwitz. Saul smiles. Is this boy the rebirth of his “son”? Again, this is just as likely as any other explanation. Is the boy Polish or German? We have no way of knowing. Saul latches onto a ritualistic experience because it would link the past of tradition to a future unimaginable inside the camp. The blond boy, whomever he is, represents that future.
Has Saul gone insane, like the girl walking in circles in Borowski’s story? Perhaps, but Nemes’ cinematic masterpiece of artistic disorientation does not bother to tell us. It leaves us only with the final ambiguity: Saul dies with us last having seen him smiling. There is, of course, absolutely nothing to be happy about, except Nemes’ final redemption of “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Our hero the narrator has, in the Hungarian film, become the inconceivably kind woman who whispers to the short story’s narrator, “My poor boy.” Saul delivers her smile to the blond boy in the forest. “My poor boy”—his face suggests—you who must grow up in a world that has rendered the atrocities of future Auschwitzes not only a possibility, but a certainty. Given this final clarity, we cry desperately for a return to the lack of focus of the film’s first shot. But, of course, in just a brief two hours, the film has left us transformed utterly, unable ever again to live in the haze of ignorance to the full extent of human brutality.
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. New York and London: Penguin, 1976 .