An Hungarian film about the Holocaust might not sound the best idea at a time of year when the phrases ‘light relief’ and ‘welcome distraction’ haunt the viewing criteria of many an escapist examinee. A path that leads to the mind-boggling pointlessness of fetish fantasy franchises, like House of Thrones or Game of Cards. Turn away from that easy path of no return. Take a different route to your existential exam season blues. Find yourself a new favourite word: perspective.
Perhaps, so you say, finding perspective in the horrors of the Holocaust is a somewhat extreme option. Admittedly, this elusive virtue, so-called ‘perspective’, can be found elsewhere, like a stroll down the river or a day trip to Sunderland. No, perhaps Saul is your man. Better Call Saul. Yes. The rogue lawyer might be exactly the sort of light fun one is searching for, but it is only through Géza Röhrig’s Saul Ausländer that the summit of solace in this season can be attained.
If you think your life is tough, that you are going to fail all your exams, that the world is crushing all around you into a tiny pulp shaped object called ‘revision’, you are misguided. The world is bigger than a few two or three hour exams. Things exist outside of your myopic suffering. It means nothing. On a scale of suffering from 1 to 10, exam revision gets a paltry 0.5 (albeit, it is an inconvenience), the holocaust ranks 11. Student suffering is nothing. Get some perspective, people.
Rant over, let’s talk about the film. Harrowing, shattering, chastening, Son of Saul is all of those platitudes and more. It defies the simple lexicon of tragedy. It moves beyond the medium of words and conveys meaning through ellipsis. We rarely see the horrors of the Holocaust. They are a constant background canvas of which we are acutely aware. But we do not need the visuals to fill in the actual details of atrocity. Bodies are dragged. Naked cadavers piled. Floors scrubbed of blood. Life lost in unquantifiable numbers. Saul’s face conveys all we need to know. Downtrodden, degraded, dehumanised.
Saul (Géza Röhrig) is our perspective. By a canny piece of cinematography we never actually see what Saul sees. Only what he has already passed. The Holocaust happens in the hazy depths out of focus onscreen. Lost to oblivion, yet never forgotten, like history itself. We follow the face, focalising the horrors through his stoic, detached expression. It has lost all emotion, merely a brow furrowed over eyes of agony. He is the personification of suffering. The human face of the Holocaust. Victim.
He maintains it throughout, only breaking into a smile in the final moments of the film. But let’s not spoil that. First, we need to know more about our man. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, groups of male, Jewish prisoners selected for their strength and given a last lease of life in the worst possible death. Before being gassed themselves, they manned the extermination chambers, doing the Nazi’s dirtiest, unimaginable work. Even in death, it was not for Aryan hands to touch the perceived filth of the Untermenschen. The human chattel collect the clothes of victims. Shovel ashes into the lakes. Bury the truth. With the Red Army on the march to the East, the Nazis try to exterminate any trace of their extermination. Had some of the Sonderkommando not escaped into the masses, we may never have known the true extent of the twentieth century’s catastrophe as the gas chambers themselves went up in smoke in 1945.
They wear the distinguishing mark, a giant red cross on the back of their haphazard uniforms, with the dejection of the lowest possible serfdom. They are defeated, but brave. Brave to the point of blind, unfounded, duplicitous optimism, stretching the sinews of the rebellious to the point of explosion. They take photos to document the unseen trauma. Horrors that remain a mere point of interest to western liberators. A mere stumbling point for Russians en route to the perceived profits and new power of an occupied Berlin. Even in their liberation, the victims of the Holocaust were a footnote to the machinations of global power. A besieged religion and race, they remained so until the final throes of the war. Forgotten then, their story lives on in László Nemes’ powerful, disturbing film that captures the essence through the untold torture, terror and trauma.
Events reach a climax when Saul is enlisted into helping the condemned Sonderkommando, but his story is complicated by the short-lived miracle of a young boy surviving the gas chamber. Miracles happen in the unlikeliest of situations, but this one is so fleetingly temporary, it only serves as an momentary respite to the collective suffering. In death, Saul takes the boy as his son, searching to grant the poor innocent a proper burial. But finding a rabbi among the inmates proves impossible. For who would admit to religious authority when all around are being put to death? The film does not delve into the issues of complicity and the moral crisis of working with the Nazis, because human free will is removed and battered to within a flicker of its final life throb. We can acknowledge the tragedy, but the sympathy we can never find. For, in this circumstance, that is a feeling beyond our comprehension. But Son of Saul is as close as we can come.
This year’s Oscar nominees for the best foreign language feature were blessed with a rare selection of truly innovative, impassioned and diverse takes on the problems of the world. While Berlin-set Victoria was certainly a strong contender, Son of Saul is the right winner and deserves all the acclaim, critical, but, most importantly, human, for finding humanity in the Holocaust. That’s perspective, people.
Image Courtesy of Curzon: Artificial Eye.