The Holocaust - one of the most frequently fictionalised events in human history and a subject which holds much dramatic interest and demands as much sensitivity. This opens up a debate about the ethics of movie making. Is it moral to profit off the tragedy of millions? Philosopher Theodor Adorno raised this issue when he stated that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. By adding characters, plot and dialogue that are intended for our enjoyment and entertainment, are we not disrespecting the trauma of the victims? Not even for entertainment, but for money - Schindler’s List grossed over 90 million dollars for Universal, turning a human catastrophe into a pot of gold.
However, is it also wrong to ignore the event completely in our virtual account of history? Educating and raising awareness is a function of cinema that is important in today’s society. To express something in art is one of the most therapeutic aspects of our culture, helping us to understand and process events. There must be a way to portray it with respect, in a manner factual and shocking without exploiting the suffering of so many.
Is this possible? French film-maker and theorist Francois Truffaut seemed to believe not, since war is so inherently exciting we cannot make a film that is anti-war. If we think about examples, specifically of the Holocaust, such as Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Life is Beautiful and The Pianist - we have irony, tragedy, adventure and thrill. And in the case of Schindler’s List, which Claude Lanzmann accused as a ‘kitschy melodrama’, we find at its centre a celebration of human kindness, a ‘feel-good’ factor somewhat absurd for an awful portrayal of this kind.
But it seems as if there is an exception to Truffaut’s generalisation.
Reviewed by The Guardian as ‘Soul Shakingly distressing’, László Nemes’ Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, is one of the most intelligent accounts of history ever portrayed on our screens. Recently added to Netflix, this intense cinematic experience is one of huge importance for those interested in more than just popcorn-munching for their evening entertainment. A challenging and thought-provoking piece of art and above all, a harrowing lesson about human experience in the camps.
The film, set in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, follows the account of inmate, Saul (Géza Röhrig), who is forced to work under the guards’ supervision as a helper in the gas chambers. Whilst clearing up bodies, Saul finds the body of his son, and sets himself on a mission to find a Rabbi in order to give his child a proper burial.
On a purely narrative basis, this sounds no different to other Hollywood dramas that have dealt with the Holocaust, some more respectfully and successfully than others. What’s so special about Son of Saul?
We see everything from Saul’s point of view and it feels real, using a ‘man in the crowd’ filming perspective that I have never before come across. It is perhaps inspired by Elem Klimov’s Soviet war drama ‘Come and See’, yet while Klimov focuses solely on the protagonist (a young Belarusian boy) to make the audience watch the character endure terrible ordeals eye to eye, Nemes uses his camera as an onlooker to the events, making the audience feel as if they were hidden in the crowd, behind the protagonist’s shoulders. Like a child, we watch, we listen, and we learn. As the camera rolls continuously in real time, we pick up on background noises, movements, bits of dialogue, and we interpret this into a story, as we do with real life. Nothing is spoon-fed to us. This is a total sensory experience – in its detail, in its prioritisation of the specific rather than the narrative, Son of Saul allows us a disturbingly immediate experience of the concentration camps that other films, circumscribed by their need to tell a story, cannot approach.
Yet the film still remains deeply gripping. It would be unimaginable to portray the Holocaust in its full brutality. By adopting this strong style of artistic cinematography, we do not just get realism, we also get respect. We see horror only in glimpses – an out-of-focus body in the background or the sound of a gunshot and a cry heard only momentarily. This makes the film not only tasteful but also watchable despite its awful subject. In addition to this is the simple premise of a man trying to bury his son. His task is plain and honest; it offers awful tension but not sentimental thrill. Through the events of this plot we are shown the dread of his situation. We are given a story, but what we take from it is a state of affairs.
Son of Saul is a rare occasion in which the absence of characterisation, poetic dialogue, classical plot and structure work in a film’s favour. This film is not tailored for our enjoyment. Its purpose is to shock and to discomfort. While Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful may make us cry and feel a safe sense of sadness, Son of Saul leaves us feeling simply empty. There is no resolution, no emotional climax, no relief. Because in real life there wasn’t. Where Hitchcock offers ‘life with the boring bits cut out’ Nemes cuts out nothing, ignores nothing. Instead, he offers us a full blown account of the Holocaust for us to experience and reflect upon, executed in the most powerful and respectful manner.