Courtesy of Mozinet Filmek

March 13, 2016

Son of Saul: Harrowing and Focused

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And Every Single One Was Someone is a 1,000 page-long book that has only one word in it; reproduced more than 6,000,000 times throughout its thin, harrowing pages is the word “Jew.” As an elegy to those who lost their lives to the Holocaust, it imbues the detached, abstract notion of “six million deaths” with a palpable intimacy — a literal weight that physicalizes the immensity of what is arguably humanity’s darkest chapter. I’ve never held a physical copy of the book, but those who have claim that they felt unable to stop turning its pages, encountering the same word repeated over and over, as if the dead were pleading for our remembrance.

To represent the Holocaust is to bear witness to an atrocity that eludes any sense of holistic representation. The implicit argument of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a nine-hour documentary constituted entirely of survivors’ testimonials, is that art — despite its beauty and nuance as a means of describing the indescribable — is unable to account for a total representation of murder on such an industrialized scale. It instead posits that the only way we can somewhat comprehend the barbarity of what occurred is by allowing those who endured it to recount their suffering: that the closest we can get to an “objective” understanding is to weave together a tapestry of subjective experiences.

Son of Saul, which closely follows the daily activities of a Hungarian Jew in 1944 Auschwitz, recognizes this inherent impossibility of total representation by instead choosing to concentrate entirely on the dehumanizing effect of the Holocaust upon one individual. Our titular protagonist is a Sonderkommando member, one of the “special” prisoners given the horrific task of herding people into the gas chambers, before disposing of their bodies afterwards. From the very opening shot, Hungarian director László Nemes maintains a tight close-up of Saul’s pained stoicism: an initially-disorientating choice that quickly becomes secondary to the harrowing events which unfold. For the entire film, we shadow Saul from this perspective, discerning the Holocaust in the peripheries of the frame, but primarily witnessing its numbing impact on him.

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Courtesy of Mozinet Filmek

This is a film whose formal innovation appropriately serves to better communicate its horrifying atmosphere, rather than the “virtuosity” (i.e., insecurity) of its director. Too often do a director’s stylistic choices distract from their portrayal. But here, Nemes recognizes the essentiality of a singular concentration — how long, uninterrupted takes are most effective when they seek to maintain an unbroken atmosphere of horror and immerse us in Saul’s quiet testimony, rather than call attention to his directorial presence. The locus of his attention — Géza Röhrig as Saul — is more than a third-person surrogate; the atrocities surrounding him are filtered to us through the subtlety of his performance, which is why his naturalistic reactions are so instrumental to the film’s potency.

What unites And Every Single One Was Someone and Son of Saul is a noble desire to prevent our collective understanding of the Holocaust’s enormity from being reduced to a mere statistic by temporal distance. Rather than allow 6,000,000 deaths to become an abstraction found only in history books, they re-animate the tragedy by either concretizing this figure in a graspable, physical form, or, as in Son of Saul’s case, by envisioning, with such unshakeable realism, the brutality of a concentration camp, as experienced by the subjective perspective one of the millions who went through them.

Indeed, while some other critics I respect have dismissed the film’s directorial constraint for failing to convey enormity of genocide, they ignore how it is not only possible to catch more than mere glimpses of it in the peripheries of the frame, but also that by focusing on the pain of one person rather than a depersonalized mass of bodies, the film pioneers an arguably more “truthful” representation of the Holocaust’s damage. Two significant charges levelled against the film are: that it is exploitative for purportedly being a film about the Holocaust in which audiences do not see much of the Holocaust, and that it superfluously leaps to the defense of Sonderkommando members when nobody ever criticized their culpability. However, what the first fails to acknowledge is that this is not a film whose literal aim is to re-enact a tragedy of which there exists archival footage and countless other re-enactments, but instead to portray a more accurate account by attending to the depth of a single experience rather than feebly encompassing the breadth of millions. The second, made by Richard Brody of the New Yorker, seems to ignore the fact that the film still acts as a harrowing reminder of Jewish suffering, irrespective of whether you additionally perceive it as a defense of a Sonderkomando’s coerced participation.

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Courtesy of Mozinet Filmek

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once said that “suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” With this knowledge, it becomes apparent that Son of Saul’s stylistic originality creates one of the most authentic cinematic expressions of the numbing, depersonalizing, claustrophobic horror born of living amongst genocide. By mirroring the tension felt by a solitary Sonderkommando member, it ultimately proves that cinema’s limitless possibilities can never elegize the Holocaust to the point of exhaustion.

Lorenzo Benitez is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at llb224@cornell.edu.

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