It was International Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday here in the U.K. . There was surprisingly little note paid to it and the fears that we could forget this monstrous horror in our history seemed more likely this year than before. Thankfully the BBC had shown the film ‘Son of Saul’ the evening before and I decided to watch this in order to think on the significance of the day.
It is unfortunate that this film is not better known. It is a stunning debut by László Nemes and hard to believe that this is a first film. Although there are a number of eminent films focussing on the holocaust, I think it is fair to say that none are as effective as this one in evoking a sense of the horror that this entailed. This film follows Saul, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, over the last two days of his life.
The film is shot, almost entirely, in close proximity to Saul so that his head and shoulders almost fill the frame. We follow him as he makes his way through the hell in which he is living. This has a duel effect.
Firstly, due to the shallow depth of field much of what happens around Saul is out of focus and blurred. We can work out what is happening and know the depravity that is there. This gives the effect of placing us, like Saul, in the position of trying to not look at what is happening but being unable to ignore what is occuring all around.
Secondly, as Saul moves from place to place at the whim, and under the blows of others we share his feeling of loss of control. He moves in a sea of sounds; cries, yelps, barked orders and screams. Various languages are used and little is explained but everything is understood in brutal clarity. Saul’s face remains impassive and blank throughout most of the film , as the ‘learned helplessness’ and need to appear submissive act as his protection – internally against despair and externally against beatings and retributions. There are only a couple of short periods when his face shows feeling and the acting, by Géza Röhrig , in this regard is simply stunning – with minimal movement entire emotions are revealed.
During the two days, we share of Saul’s life, he is in a desparate quest to try and arrange the burial of a boy who survived the gas chamber only to be deliberately suffocated by a medical attendant. We are never really sure why the boy is important to Saul and why his body has taken such signifiance (Compared to all the other bodies, bluntly termed “pieces“, of which the Sonderkommandos disposed). But this little fragment of humanity, and link to his faith, give him for a period some purpose.
However, this sense of purpose does not necessarily mean hope. Unlike other films tackling this subject, such as Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, there is no respite here. There are people acting heroically in the face of overwhelming odds but there are no heroes hiding on the sidelines. There are few glimmers of light and while it does remind us that the human spirit can sometimes survive against all the odds it also, much more importantly, reminds us of the depravity to which mankind can descend. The increasing reports of antisemitism in the UK and on mainland Europe have made Holocaust Memorial Day more important than before. Films, like this one, may counter the danger of the passage of time making our memories weak and leaving us unaware of the true nature and danger of fascism. The first step in protecting ourselves is to ensure that we never forget.