It is one of my most strongly held critical beliefs that you should not write about films you don’t like. First, it is bad for the soul to exult in pointing out the deficiencies of the film in question. Second, if you have ever had the luck to produce a film yourself, you are aware that any film that makes it to a public screen is a small miracle of energy and determination, and it is simply unkind to say that the miracle was a complete waste of time. Finally, and on a more prudential note, people mind about bad reviews, so it is a very quick way of making a lot of enemies. This year’s Cannes has tested this resolve to the limit with a succession of terrible and second-rate films.
One film, however, has stood out from this company: László Nemes’s Son of Saul. Indeed, in thirty years of attending this festival I cannot remember any other film that has sparked such long and detailed arguments.
Nemes is quite obviously an enormously talented director. He was Bela Tarr’s assistant for two years, but although he shares his former boss’s sense of the cinema as frame and shot, he is also much more interested in narrative and drive. It is perhaps appropriate that it is a Hungarian who has made the most serious fictional effort to date to represent the hideous nature of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps, because nearly 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed at Birkenau, and it was directly to deal with these Hungarians that the train tracks were extended right into the Birkenau camp. Indeed, there is a play of languages in the film—Yiddish, German, Hungarian, Hebrew—of which this Anglophone viewer caught only the slightest echoes. However, given the intelligence and care of the rest of the film, I suspect that this polyphony gives it yet a further layer of historical complexity.
Godard once said that the only way to make a film about Auschwitz was to make it from the point of view of a guard. Nemes has gone one better. Son of Saul is a film shot from the point of view of a member of a sonderkommando. These were units of Jews who actually supervised the last moments of those about to be gassed, took out the bodies to be buried, and then cleaned the ovens for the next batch. The genius of the film is to make Saul’s point of view the spectator’s only access to the camps. So we see him at work: helping the victims out of their clothes, cleaning the ovens. The horror is almost always just out of sight or on the very edge of our vision. What is at the center is the relentless pace of extermination—the extraordinary resources that the Germans devoted to the extermination of a people, as they were losing the war on both Eastern and Western Fronts. So we are with Saul in a factory of death. But then miraculously there is a boy who lives much longer than he should after inhaling the Zyklon B gas, and the doctors decide to perform an autopsy to discover the reason for this hitch in the assembly line of murder. Saul recognizes the boy as his son, and the film then becomes the tale of his search to find a rabbi so that his child can be properly buried. There is no dwelling on Jewish identity, no sign of religious faith in Saul’s search. It is simply that the right words must be said in the right order.
Saul’s search takes us into the heart of these sonderkommandos. Each gang has its boss’s name, and it is these bosses who deal directly with the Germans, who, like the victims, appear only on the edges of the screen. In the sonderkommandos, privileges and perks are for sale on a black market that is also harboring a plan to break out from the camps (this places the film in September 1944). I will not spoil the twists and turns in the plot, but suffice it to say that Nemes keeps you gripped in a manner quite unlike Bela Tarr’s films.
There is to my mind almost no doubt that Nemes is a great director. It is a long time, if ever, since I have seen a first-time film crackling with such cinematic intelligence. Nor have I any doubts about recommending that anyone who wants to see a great example of the seventh art get to a good cinema to see Son of Saul as soon as it is released. It is impossible, however, to watch the film without confronting the still burning critical issue of how one can represent the mass extermination campaign of the Nazis from 1942 onward. There is a banal level at which representation is simply impossible. All the bodies (as they would have to be in any fictional film) are too well-fed and too healthy. The corpses that are being carried off at the edges of the screen show no signs of the physical distress that was universal in the camps.
There is, however, a more complex level of argument that has raged from the very moment of the discovery of the camps: How can one represent the enormity of the crime of the extermination camps of the Final Solution? Even the words used to describe it make choices for us, choices that we may not approve. Since the television series Holocaust in 1978, it is that term that has come to be the most normal way to refer to the death camps. But Holocaust is a word that originally described a form of animal sacrifice by fire. It is an essentially religious term. The two great attempts to use film to understand the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes eschewed both religion and any attempt to fictionalize what had happened. Alain Resnais, in Night and Fog, used contemporary footage of the sites with documentary footage from the time, and Claude Lanzmann, in Shoah, went one further and used no archival footage at all. While no one I have talked to was unmoved by Nemes’s film, many felt that it effectively diminished the mass extermination by focusing on one individual story.
The choice of story is undoubtedly central. The burial of the dead is perhaps the most obvious way that humans distinguish themselves from other animals. We have in Sophocles’s classic tragedy Antigone a fundamental statement of how care for the dead overrides all other social relations. For those who love Son of Saul, it is this choice of story that makes the film so gripping a narrative. For those who have reservations, the problem of the story is that it suggests a redemption that effectively stops us thinking about Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historical event. I expect that the argument will spread from Cannes as the film is released worldwide.