“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” said Theodore Adorno in one of the most famous things ever said about the Holocaust. One could just as easily argue that “not to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
To create art – any art, all art – isn’t barbaric. It’s a requisite for the existence of civilization, for the conception of existence as something other than barbarism.
The Hungarian film “Son of Saul” will allow for no such barbarism. It was one of the great films of 2015. It refuses to be generic. In completely reinventing the “Holocaust film,” its triumphant fortunes on Sunday’s Oscars seem predictable – not that it matters in any larger or decent scheme of things.
We have, unfortunately, allowed the “Holocaust film” to become a cinematic genre, like the Western or the screwball comedy. It is a genre that often does particularly well at the Oscars for reasons that may touch on guilt and human tribalism as much as quality.
“Son of Saul,” though, is the magnificent first film of Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, who also is an actor and a poet. It was his intention to uproot the subject and make it personal – and thereby to present us with an entirely new horror in something some people have actually come to think of as “that old subject” (to quote the exact phrase used by a very great critic I once heard in conversation a few decades ago).
“Son of Saul” is a film about a sonderkommando unit in one of the Nazi death camps (we assume it’s Auschwitz but we’re not told that).
That was the name for the Jewish death camp prisoners forced to do the vilest “cleanup” labor of death camp extermination. They were the ones forced to silently lead naked prisoners to what they were told were going to be showers followed by a cup of soup. After the gas, they were forced to pillage the clothes for profit for their captors. Then they ferried the dead bodies to the ovens and shoveled the ashes into the river afterward.
It’s all performed for minimal and transitory consideration in food and lodging. And then to maintain the fictions of “the showers” the camps depended on, they too would eventually be exterminated.
What almost all of “Son of Saul” does is to follow inches away in incredible unbroken shots Saul Auslander, a member of the sonderkommando. We watch what is a moral degradation for survival’s sake that is barely conceivable – all of it treated like a job.
When a boy somehow survives the “shower” and remains unconscious, Saul sees a German soldier matter-of-factly complete the job by distractedly smothering his face with his large hand.
Saul claims the boy to be his son. Ever afterward, Saul searches for a rabbi to give the boy a proper Jewish burial, complete with rabbinical recitation of the Kaddish prayer for the dead.
All of which has to coexist with a secret prisoner plan for an uprising.
It is a simple story of one man forced to function under the maximum possible moral degradation before death finally relieves him of the necessity.
It is brilliant from start to finish, not least because of the film’s insistence on never leaving Saul. It transforms the Holocaust from a historical abstraction all-too-easy to think of generically into a personal reality that we are never more than inches away from.
The power, then, of this radically different story is unprecedented. At the end, barbarism continues but a vision of civilization endures.
A vision encased within a crucial work of cinematic art that makes it explicitly clear why it can only be disgust with art and civilization that ultimately has to be seen as barbaric.
“Son of Saul” transforms “that old subject” into something immense, extraordinarily moving and miraculously new.