In his Oscar-nominated Son of Saul, director Laszlo Nemes challenges the “uplifting” “survival stories” of the World War II generation as “self-protective lies” and claims to approach the Holocaust from the more truthful perspective of an Auschwitz Sonderkomando member.
The film has provoked “an intense debate among critics about the moral implications of Mr. Nemes’s aesthetic choices,” Rachel Donadio of The New York Times noted after it won the Grand Prix at Cannes. How we view these choices is of crucial importance now that the generation of witnesses and survivors is dying and future generations will learn about the Holocaust solely from books and films. But what lessons will they derive from its recounting if “the hero” and “the survivor” are replaced by “the corpse” and “the living dead?” “This generation is not the one that deals with these stories of survival as a way of processing the trauma of the Holocaust. This is a generation that doesn’t know much about anything of this sort... I did not look for a hero and I was not interested in the survivor’s point of view,” Nemes told critic Amir Ganjavie, on MUBI.com, in an interview on July 7, 2015.
From such works as Primo Levy’s Survival in Auschwitz and Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning to films like The Pianist, Europa/Europa, Life Is Beautiful and Korczack, the critically acclaimed Holocaust accounts created by those who actually lived through it strove to capture its horror along with the heroism that ultimately led to the defeat of the Nazis and the survival of the Jewish people. But for Nemes, such uplifting works came “from a defensive mechanism, as a way to get away from the Holocaust” and therefore these films “did much to lie about the experience of the camp.”
“Previous films about the Holocaust all dealt with abnormal, exceptional characters who wanted to survive,” he told Gonjavie. However, “Survival is a lie, it was the exception....” In effect, the truth Nemes wants to tell his contemporaries is that when it comes to the Holocaust, the Nazis won: “I don’t think Auschwitz and the extermination of the European Jews was about survival. It was about death. And how Europe killed itself, committed suicide,” the director told Donadio.
Being plunged into the horror of the death machine at Auschwitz is not the most disturbing part of Son of Saul. What is most disturbing is being asked to follow a central character who in the words of Geza Rohrig, who played Saul, “had to be this zombie robotic living-dead person.” The film suggests that the strategies the Nazis used to dehumanize their victims succeeded in turning them into “the living dead.”
To get his actors to portray humans divested of humanity was no simple matter.
“They had to show a limited spectrum of emotion since they had already lived in Auschwitz for a period of time, and so they were in a very reduced state of mind,” Nemes told Gonjavie. “I had to fight with all of them....”
This directorial choice makes it impossible for us to see Saul or his mates as individuals with feelings, personalities, or histories. We see the camp inmates exactly as the Nazis wanted them to be seen – as less than human. New York Times critic Manhola Dargis points out the irony of the filmmaker’s “intellectually repellent” choices: “The result is to transform all the screaming, weeping, men, women and children into anonymous background blurs.”
The freedom to choose is the defining attribute of our humanity, Dr.
Viktor Frankel argued in Man’s Search for Meaning, published soon after his liberation from Auschwitz. “There were always choices to be made. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
Nemes’s protagonist, Saul, might appear to make a choice to reclaim his dormant humanity at the beginning of the film when he starts looking for a rabbi to bury the body of a boy he says is his son. But Saul’s frenzied quest is not presented as an act of principled courage, like Antigone’s decision in Sophocles’ tragedy to defy Creon’s edict and bury her brother. As David Edelstein of New York magazine points out, Saul’s action is dictated not by choice, but by compulsion.
“As the film goes on, it’s more and more apparent... Saul has no son. We are trailing a madman. ...There is only one full-fleshed character in Son of Saul, and he has only one idea, an idée fixe.”
The choice to not give Saul any choices that might render him rational or admirable is a deliberate artistic one. Saul has the opportunity to participate in a collective act of resistance, but in his mad obsession, he messes up.
“You have failed the living for the dead,” his outraged mates tell him.
“But we are already dead,” Saul responds.
“He loses the bomb material which was essential for the success of the revolt because he seems to be more focused on his own work than any form of solidarity. Why did you choose that kind of ambiguous character for such an intricate topic?” Gonjavie asked Nemes.
“We wanted a marginal figure, someone more low key and normal,” Nemes responded. In this director’s view, the only response a normal man could have in a mad world is to go mad himself.
“In Auschwitz there is no other choice,” Nemes told Ganjave. “You have to be mad.” To allow Saul the moral clarity to take a stand and carry it through would transform him into a heroic human being and risk defying the current conventions of art house films and rendering him unrelatable to contemporary sensibilities.
The action of Son of Saul is set at the time of one of the most heroic acts of resistance in Auschwitz’s history: the revolt of the Sonderkomando at Auschwitz- Birkenau, on October 7, 1944.
Incredible acts of heroism and solidarity between male and female, Polish, Hungarian and Jewish inmates occurred during this revolt.
“The Sonderkommando in Crematorium 4 drag their demolition charges into the oven rooms and detonate them in a defiant suicide.
Approximately 200 Sonderkommando are forced to lie face down outside the crematoria where they are executed with single shots to the back of the head,” reports The Jewish Virtual Library. “Despite months of beatings and rape and electric shocks to their genitals, the only names given up by the women are those of already dead Sonderkommando.”
Could such acts be performed by “living dead people” in “a very reduced state of mind?” That ordinary individuals are capable of extraordinary actions and can behave sanely and humanely even in insane, inhuman conditions proves that the human spirit will always triumph over the forces that strive to crush it. Unlike the disconnected and self-absorbed Saul, obsessed with doing his own thing even if it means betraying his comrades, the former concentration camp prisoners I taught in my memoir writing classes at The University of Judaism in the 1990s always stressed the bonds of love, friendship and self-sacrifice that kept them and those they lost alive until the last possible moment.
“Only solidarity allowed us to remain human when confronted with our executioners and their schlague beatings,” wrote Raymonde Tillon, a French Resistance fighter.
She was quoted by Monique Saigal, a French-Jewish child survivor, in her recent book, French Heroines 1940- 1945: Courage, Strength and Ingenuity.
Saigal, now a professor at Pomona College, interviewed French women who resisted the Nazis both in and out of the death camps. These women “rubbed each other’s backs to keep warm during the long hours of roll call. They shared their meager bread rations with those who had been deprived of them as punishment. ...In the face of death, they vehemently affirmed their will to live. In the face of stupidity, their ingenuity survived.
In the face of baseness, they rose to heroism.”
In speaking of the Holocaust, isn’t this the story we hope will be transmitted to the next generation?
The author is English Department Chair at Touro College, Los Angeles.