This fall movie season has seen the release of films dealing with a range of heavy topics, from gang violence in Chicago to man’s battle with the brutality of nature. Undoubtedly, the most unrelenting film on the fall slate, however, is Hungarian director László Nemes’ debut feature, Son of Saul (2015). Set in Auschwitz in 1944, the film follows a Sonderkommando – one of a select group of prisoners who worked in the gas chambers – who discovers the body of a young boy he believes to be his son, and becomes determined to give the boy a proper burial. The film has received numerous glowing reviews, with critics declaring that it “illustrates the potential for cinema to push its linguistic and interpretive boundaries into new arenas” and “has found a way to create a fictional drama with a gaunt, fierce kind of courage.” After winning the Grand Prix at Cannes this summer, the film has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Of course, it is hardly unusual for a film about the Holocaust to receive awards nominations – indeed, an entire cinematic subgenre on the topic has emerged in recent years, with films from Schindler’s List (1994) to Life is Beautiful (1997) to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) regularly racking up awards. The phenomenon has become so well-established that it has become a familiar joke: years before her Oscar win for her performance in The Reader (2008), Kate Winslet joked on the show Extras (2005) that appearing in a Holocaust movie is a sure-fire way to finally take home a shiny gold man.
What sets Son of Saul apart from these film is not its content, but its aesthetic approach to depicting the horrors of the Shoah and its total rejection of the hope and sentimentality associated with films like Schindler’s List. Shot entirely in close-up on the protagonist’s face, the film communicates the alienation of a man in an impossible position and uses the haunted visage of actor Géza Röhrig, peripheral images, and soundscapes to depict the unimaginable. The film fits most nearly into the intellectual tradition of documentaries like Night and Fog (1955) and Shoah (1985) and European works about the Holocaust that attempt to probe the existential implications of mechanized mass murder and the widespread, spectacular failure of empathy.
However rigorous and well-intentioned the film is, however, it has also received critiques as vitriolic as its positive reviews are gushing. Most famously, in a dispatch from Cannes, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called the film “radically dehistoricized” and “intellectually repellent,” noting that the film’s unrelenting use of close-ups “transform[s] all the screaming, weeping condemned men, women and children into anonymous background blurs.” Stefan Grissemann in Film Comment finds the film similarly morally reprehensible, taking issue with inaccuracies about the reality of life in Auschwitz and, more significantly, objecting to the idea of setting a suspenseful thriller in a concentration camp, asserting that “In its pursuit of controversy, Son of Saul plumbs unforeseeably new depths of revulsion.” While Grissemann recognizes the film’s accomplished aesthetics, he finds that its very virtuosity contributes to the work’s ethical emptiness. He declares, “In the end, Son of Saul is an exploitation film not despite but because of its technical skill and resolute cunning.”
These objections are not unusual reactions to art that attempts to depict the Shoah; the intellectual history of questioning how and whether to attempt to transform one of the most shocking horrors of the 20th century into art has existed for as long as artists have attempted depictions. Nemes and Röhrig are both aware of what a fraught subject the topic of their film is; in an interview with Salon, Röhrig acknowledges the two major schools of thought regarding depictions of the Holocaust.
“When it comes to Holocaust movies,” he says, “you find yourself against two extremities. One extremity is I think very doctrinaire and very theoretical, or at least hardliners who are saying that they are the proponents of non-representability. And they say, you know, you should never go there, it’s not visualizable, it’s sacred, it cannot be done: stay away from the Holocaust. Whoever goes there, touches there, is trivializing it. You know that school, and I couldn’t disagree with that approach more, because I think there are plenty of neo-Nazis in the world who would welcome such an approach. And I think that to mystify the Holocaust, and to not make movies or novels or whatever about that, it would be a disservice. I think it’s a moral duty of cinema and literature, with their authentic right responsible way, to attack the topic.”
In the Salon conversation, Nemes is critical of the typical approach to the Holocaust in cinema, insisting that a straightfoward narrative film “cannot encompass the horror that took place; opening it up and reconstructing only reduces the scope of it.” He defends the approach taken in Son of Saul saying that, “narrowing [the audience’s view] would much more rely on the imagination of the viewer, who would use their mind to hint at something that’s much more hard to put into words and images.” Both men warn against the danger of using historical tragedy to cover up intellectual or ethical laziness, but hope that Son of Saul will set a new precedent for Holocaust films that seriously and rigorously engage with the subject.
In the decades following the end of WWII, the Shoah has transformed from unthinkable and undepictable to a regular feature of the annual cinematic awards season. The passionate, wildly divergent responses to Son of Saul have created one of the most fascinating, necessary conversations in the contemporary world of film and art; by rehabilitating the question of how and if one can depict the holocaust, Son of Saul has illuminated the enormous responsibility of the artist who attempts to engage with the darkest depths of human experience.