X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Arts feature

Should the Final Solution ever be made into entertainment?

Amid the abundant cinema of Nazi atrocity, the Oscar-winning Son of Saul is exemplary. Ian Thomson explains why

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a Man, Levi’s chronicle of survival, offers a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who have survived the Nazi camps have the right to forgive or condemn.

Attempts to recreate the Final Solution on screen were mostly a ‘macabre indecency’, said Levi. The 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, helped to break 33 years of near-silence in Germany surrounding Hitler’s war against the Jews, but Levi feared the dramatisation would cheapen the enormity of Auschwitz. Once that happens, the process of forgetting has already begun. The 1970s saw a rash of other films that falsified the nature of Nazi violence. Tawdry box-office hits such as The Night Porter and Salon Kitty played on a lurid fantasy of sexual relations between the SS and their prisoners. With their paraphernalia of whips and jackboots, the films were ‘swastika chic — the stuff of pornography’, Levi judged.

Son of Saul, the debut film by the Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, 39, defies our tendency to oversimplify and judge. Based on true events, it tells of Jews who were forced to collaborate at Auschwitz in order to survive. In return for clothes and food, the camp’s Special Squads or Sonderkommandos had to shepherd fellow Jews to the gas chambers. Nemes’s film, which has won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, offers no crass explanations for how the Nazis degraded others into their moral corruption. As an Auschwitz guard says in If This is a Man: ‘Here there is no why.’

Saul (played by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig) works at a furious ‘SS trot’ to ensure the efficient assembly-line gassing of human beings. While hosing down a gas chamber with his Sonderkommando unit one day in October 1944 he discovers the body of a child he thinks is his son. To save just one death from the industrial exploitation of Jewish corpses — their ashes and their teeth — would affirm human dignity. So Saul now risks everything to give the boy a dignified Jewish burial. By this late stage in the war the Nazi practice of extermination — Vernichtungswissenschaft — had become so refined that the condemned remained deceived until the doors shut on them in the false shower rooms. Shockingly, the film opens with sounds off-screen of wailing and banging on doors as Zyklon-B crystals (a pesticide used to kill rats) suffocate another trainload of Hungarian Jews.


Unlike Roberto Benigni’s offensively trite 1997 Nazi camp ‘comedy’ Life is Beautiful, the Hungarian film raises the question of whether fiction can do justice to the incredibility of Auschwitz. There have been other slaughters in recent times, but none was so ferocious, so total in its effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe. But should such suffering be recreated for our entertainment? Is it morally permissible? The debate is not new.

Alain Resnais’ landmark documentary Night and Fog, released in 1955 to mark the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, juxtaposed archive material with colour footage of the present-day sites of Auschwitz and Majdanek. For all its quiet power, the film feels slightly dated. Claude Lanzmann, who directed the nine-hour oral history Shoah, believes that archive photographs of piles of women’s hair and suitcases at Auschwitz have lost their emotive power. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was dismissed by Lanzmann as a pietistic work that ‘trivialised’ the Jewish tragedy, but Son of Saul won his admiration. ‘It’s very original, very unusual,’ Lanzmann said, adding, ‘It’s a film that gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando.’ Really? How can a film communicate that degree of meaningless evil?

For almost two hours we stare into Saul’s fear-ridden face as he hurries round Auschwitz in search of a rabbi for the boy’s burial. Shot in jerky 35mm, the film pulls the viewer into a shouting, clanging babel of barked German orders and bursts of Magyar and other east European tongues. There is no music, but sickly yellow-green shadows contribute to a sense of Auschwitz as a vile and isolated instance of human infamy. The ‘machinery of extermination’ (as Lanzmann calls it) is accentuated by a soundscape of clanking cattle-car doors and a metallic scraping of shovels. Indistinctly glimpsed details of German uniforms and naked gassed bodies suggest a Dantean hellpit.

Son of Saul has the visceral impact of Elem Klimov’s 1985 war film Come and See. The absence of meaning or explanation for the Nazi camp’s purpose forces us to reflect on our cultural obsession with Nazi Germany and the destruction of European Jewry. Scarcely a year goes by without a film depicting yellow stars, stamping black boots and a sadistic SS overseer. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness: these are great movies up to a point. They are designed to promote catharsis and a roseate glow of hope in us, when the reality is that Hitler and his race-engineers did not allow for hope. At Auschwitz, anus mundi, the murder of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ was made a civic virtue; in this way, Germany departed from the community of civilised human beings.

Seventy years on, we are still trying to understand the catastrophe that engulfed the Jews in the Hitlerite storm. Son of Saul, for all its evident originality, has been wrongly compared to Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film The Grey Zone, about the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. Primo Levi’s darkest (and most painfully argued) essay, ‘La zona grigia’, lent the title to this film, which stars Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel. Unfortunately, Hollywood celebrities jarr in films that seek to answer the central question: how the country that gave us Bach and Goethe was able to commit such a crime as murder all the Jews within its jurisdiction. The Grey Zone, with its maudlin violin score, cheapens as well as glamorises the Nazi atrocities.

Amid the abundant cinema of Nazi atrocity, however, Son of Saul is exemplary. Nemes does not attempt to recreate the more bestial aspects of Hitler’s demolition project. Instead, everything comes down to one man’s suffering. Saul’s face in close-up creates an extraordinary sense of communion and intimacy with the audience. His increasingly desperate attempts to bury the child are narrated without the prurient tenor of much ‘Holocaust’ cinema (Sophie’s Choice, Escape from Sobibor), yet we are dazed by the daring of his self-appointed mission to lay an innocent to rest. Son of Saul appears at a moment when the debate about film and the Nazi camps has been revived with the restoration of Sidney Bernstein’s documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, and Andre Singer’s Night Will Fall, which charts that film’s suppression by the British government after the war on grounds of shocking content.

Against the odds, Son of Saul has become Hungary’s biggest independent film at the box office, while Germany was pointedly hesitant to release a movie that might provoke levels of national guilt. For years after the war, German writers and film-makers neglected to refer by name either to the Nazis or their victims. (Instead of ‘Jews’, the novelist Heinrich Böll alluded coyly to ‘the lambs’.) German admonitions to ‘overcome the past’ and do the ‘labour of mourning’ (Trauerarbeit) will now include screenings of Laszlo Nemes’s taboo-breaking film. All life and death is in its burning images; let the images haunt us.

Son of Saul is released in key cities on 29 April.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close